Full Moon Fever
by
Tira Nog (aka Rosemary)


The moon was more than simply full tonight. It was huge and engorged, looking more like a special effect in a werewolf movie than an object of nature as it cleared the tree tops on the far side of the snow-covered field. The lunar light had turned that field the eeriest, blue-tinted white Daniel Strong Hand could ever remember seeing. The bare-limbed trees surrounding his viewpoint shifted in the wind, their ice-laced branches glinting as though diamond-studded.

Who knew, maybe they were diamonds. This Carstairs guy seemed to have money to burn.

Daniel dug his hands deeper into the pockets of his denim jacket, very aware that he was grossly
underdressed for this weather. The night had passed blustery hours ago and was working its way toward arctic. A survival parka would have been more in keeping with the temperature, but as the choice had been between a
winter coat and a replacement amp, the coat had had to wait. But maybe not much longer.

The surrounding estates just screamed money. If Joey played this Cleveland guy right, they might clear enough from tonight's gig to keep them going the next two months. And perhaps if Dan himself were really frugal, he might be able to stretch his take to include both the rent and a new coat.

He supposed he should go back inside before his fingers stiffened up, but right now the icy air felt good against his overheated skin. The rich scents of pine and snow were a welcome change from the cloud of tobacco and marijuana smoke obscuring the hall in which they were performing.

There was something about this whole gig that bothered him. This Cleveland dude was just a couple of years older than him. How the hell could a guy that young rate this kind of spread?

Christ, the oil paintings alone on the walls of the room they were playing would have bought his entire home town – and three or four dozen others, as well. He didn't need a college degree to know originals when he saw them. Nor was one required to figure out that the kind of party being thrown in that hall wasn't healthy for the ancient paintings. The smoke and flashing strobe lights aside, some of the guests didn't even look housebroken.

If Dan had had his way, they would have passed up this gig. He loathed these rich brats who believed they could buy anything if they just flashed enough cash around. The fact that Last Gasp was doing so poorly that Joey would have sold Cleveland their instruments – and their fucking souls, if the price were right – only made Dan all the angrier.

He didn't know how they'd fallen to this state. They'd been good once. Full of promise. The world could have been theirs for the taking. Only nowadays, Joey spent more time feeding his sinuses than he did at the keyboards. The magic was gone, both under the sheets and under the spotlights.

Dan could have handled the first. He'd long ago come to the conclusion that love didn't really exist outside of song and art. What Joey and he had was hot and convenient. The fire they'd made together on stage carried over to the bedroom, wild and free, pure chemistry. But never once had Dan deluded himself that what they had was love. Joey was always more than eager to exchange him for some pretty little thing in the audience. If it had been love, he figured Joey wouldn't have done that and he wouldn't have been willing to put up with it, no matter how good the music was.

And the music wasn't even happening anymore. Joey and Lenny, the bass player, didn't seem to care that all they did these days was play covers at progressively worse dives. Christ, they were back to doing house parties. Next stop weddings and bar mitzvahs?

In his heart Dan knew it was time for a change, but there was a part of him that kept hoping Joey would turn things around. They'd been together since they were sixteen. Four years. They hadn't been lovers for the last eighteen months. These days they were barely on speaking terms, Joey's drug habit becoming more and more a source of contention between them. Nevertheless, Dan still felt it would be disloyal to give up, to jump like a rat deserting a sinking ship.

So here he stood, freezing on a November night, trying to make sense of his life.

There was a beauty to this moonlit scene. Granted, not a beauty most would appreciate. But it moved him. The stark loneliness of the night. The unforgiving cold. The shivering trees. The ice-covered lake just visible through the shifting pines. All of it touched something deep within him.

"You should've worn your coat. It's cold out here tonight," a gravelly voice remarked from close by.

Dan swung around at the sound, his long hair swishing about him. He'd been certain he was alone in the snow-covered garden.

There to his left, in the cloaking shadows of an overgrown yew tree, stood the speaker. As the man stepped forward, Dan could see that the guy was about his own age. His skin was almost the same porcelain white as the snow, except where the cold and wind had reddened his cheeks and the tip of his nose to a bright pink that was visible even in the uncertain moonlight. If the stranger's expression hadn't been so serious, his features might have been considered cherubic, but not angelic. The upturned nose and squirrel-like cheeks gave the face an engaging air of mischief that shone through the somber air that clung to the man. It was a face made for laughing, Dan thought, not intended for the dark circles currently ringing the pale blue eyes.

His newly-met companion was wearing a heavy overcoat with a woolen blanket draping his head and shoulders. A gloved hand held the blanket bunched under his pointed chin, the effect rather like that of a babushka kerchief. The tuft of golden hair sticking out from under it brought an amused smile to Dan's lips. The blanket, classically-cut coat and the suit pants Dan could just make out below made the stranger look like a refugee from a 40's flick.

"I am wearing my coat," he corrected, without the belligerence he might have displayed under other circumstances. There was no way the guy could have approached without Dan's hearing him, which meant that the stranger had been standing in this winter wasteland even longer than he had. He felt an odd kinship to anyone drawn to this harsh beauty.

"You'd better take this, then," the voice puffed in a steamy cloud as the other man removed his blanket, his blond hair aureoling out around his head.

"Hey, man, that's okay. I don't wanta take your blanket," Dan denied, trying to read an ulterior motive behind the thoughtful offer.

"It's okay. I'm going inside. You'll get frostbite out here without something warmer."

There was a hesitance to those gentle, clear eyes, something in the other man's entire attitude that made Dan suspect he wasn't used to talking to strangers, even though it was the blond himself who had initiated the conversation. It was almost as if the man had stood there in concealment quietly watching Dan shiver for as long as he was able to before stepping forward to offer the blanket. Wondering what it could possibly matter to the stranger if he were too dumb to come in out of the cold, Dan studied the face for some clue.

All he saw were haunted eyes and an agony so raw that even a stranger could read it in his features.

"All right," Dan agreed, accepting the offering with a shivering hand. "Thanks."

"It's okay," the other man said, turning into the shadows.

"Hey, wait," Dan called as his benefactor turned to leave.

The shorter man froze, gazing back almost trepidantly over his shoulder, looking as if he fully expected an attack to repay his kindness. "Yes?"

<i>He's like a wild deer caught unaware, ready to flee at the first unexpected movement or sound,</i> Dan thought as he wrapped the blanket around himself, very aware of the body heat lingering in the soft wool.

He consciously gentled his attitude, doing his best to appear less threatening. Useless effort. Even when he wasn't on stage, he cut a very striking figure. With his height, long black hair, dark eyes, red skin, and hard-rock image, most people found him intimidating. Dan knew he had a very savage, physical presence and often traded off it, but this timid, conservative stranger didn't seem the kind to be favorably impressed with his rock-star swagger. Absently, Dan wondered about the other man's presence here at all. This bookish youth didn't appear the type to be invited to the swinger Cleveland's party.

"Don't you like the party?" Dan asked, unsure how to approach this quiet individual.

The stranger's blue eyes regarded him for a long moment before the man guardedly replied, "Not really."

"How come?" He kept his tone carefully neutral, sensing how close the other man was to bolting.

"It's too noisy. What about you?" It looked as if it had taken an act of courage to get the question out.

Not understanding why a simple conversation should be such a trial, but appreciating the effort the stranger was making, Dan answered, "I'm on a break. Just needed to clear my head."

"A break?"

"Yeah." Dan gave an amused grin. "I'm the lead noise-maker."

"What?"

"I'm the lead guitarist with Last Gasp."

"Oh." The soft exclamation preceded a return of that wary light to the stranger's eyes.

"You don't like heavy metal?" Dan asked as if it were no big deal, noticing how the blond man relaxed at the soft question.

"It's not really my kind of music."

"Yeah? What do you like?"

The glance that earned him was almost evaluating. Used to people judging him by his long hair and clothes, Dan waited to be politely told that he probably wouldn't be interested.

"Mostly stuff from the big band era. Tommy Dorsey. Glenn Miller. That sort of sound." The other man straightened, as if steeling himself for laughter.

"No shit! Those guys really knew how to play," Dan admired.

"You like them?" The first flicker of real interest entered the man's wind-blown face.

"I like all kinds of music. Rock is my first love, but I can get off on some of that old sound," Dan said.

"Did you ever hear Tommy Dorsey? I love the song where. . . ."

Dan listened in amazement as the shy man opened up, revealing a highly-intelligent, passionate spirit hiding behind that timid exterior. He wondered who had hurt him, who had caused that protective shell in the first place.

Shivering in the frigid night, they talked music for the next ten minutes. Caught up in the conversation, it was only an accidental glance at his wristwatch that told Dan he was about to be late for the next set.

"Aw, fuck. I gotta go, man. We're on in two minutes. Maybe I'll see you around later, huh?" Dan asked, surprised by the tingle of interest that fluttered through his belly at the idea. Not sure why it was so important, he held his breath as he waited for a response.

'Yeah. Maybe," the stranger replied, his tone sounding disappointed.

"Thanks again for the blanket, man." Dan relinquished the wonderful warmth, patting the other man's shoulder as he passed it back, needing to establish some line of physical contact between them.

"Ah, sure."

Feeling strangely as though he were abandoning the quiet blond, Dan hurried back into the building.

He needn't have worried about being on time. It took almost fifteen minutes to pry Joey from Cleveland's powdered party favors.

Forty minutes later, Dan was miserable again, plowing through a Doors standard as Joey mangled the piano chords past recognition, the coke and booze having their usual effect on his former lover.

Dan looked over at Lenny to see how he was liking the set, the glazed hazel eyes telling him that Len wasn't far behind Joey. They had one more break before their final set. From the looks of things, he and Rich, the drummer, would be finishing up the show alone. Again.

Wishing he'd wet his throat before starting, Dan belted out the lyrics.

He was almost glad there weren't any of the promised contacts out in the audience tonight. He wouldn't want a record producer seeing them like this. Shit, he was almost embarrassed to have these wasted rich kids witnessing it.

His gaze ran disinterestedly over the pool of bobbing, empty faces on the dance floor below, stopping and returning as he encountered a newly-familiar face to the left of the stage, gazing up at him with almost rapt attention. That same unexpected shiver quivered through his insides.

What was it about this guy? The blond had his coat off, so Dan could now see how outdated the grey suit he wore was. Somewhere between here and the garden, the guy had greased back his hair in a severe sweep off his face. With his slicked-back hair and that ridiculous bow tie, the stranger was almost nerdy. Any other time, Dan would've passed him over as a hopeless geek. The body was nothing special, his face not particularly handsome, yet when Dan met those heavily-circled, intensely unhappy eyes, it was just like Don Johnson or a young Elvis Presley had put the make on him.

The Doors number rattled to a halt. Joey finishing a full three beats ahead the rest of the band.

Dan looked down into those compelling blue eyes below, then glanced back at his band mates. Len was staring off over the audience's heads. Joey was desperately trying to decipher the song list; his eyes were no doubt unable to focus any longer. Rich, the drummer, was the only one of the band besides Dan himself who was even remotely tuned into the here-and-now.

"Follow me," Dan called out over the crowd's babble.

"Huh?" Rich signed with an eloquent shrug of his shoulders.

Dan leaned into his mike. "Follow me," he instructed and squealed out the opening bars of <i>The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B</i> on his Stratocaster guitar, his gaze locked on his new friend.

The change which occurred was amazing. It was like watching a sunrise, the way the joy stole over those serious features with blinding sweetness.

Hearing Joey's bewildered, "What the fuck! That ain't on the list… is it?" Dan grinned, using some fancy finger-work to rock the beat a little bit more than its writer had intended.

Dan took a quick look back at Rich, relieved to see that the drummer appeared to be enjoying himself for the first time that night.

After that, Dan just played to the blond stranger below, putting every bit of himself and his considerable expertise into the 40's dance song. His fingers flew across the fret board, never missing a note or beat as he redefined a tune for this 90's audience that had been old when their parents were kids.

He'd never tried anything like this before. Unsure of the lyrics, he just sang the choruses. He let his fingers do the singing through the rest of the song, taking pleasure from the sight of his contained friend swaying in place while the rest of the audience went wild around him.

Curious, Dan wondered what it would take to get the blond to completely lose his cool.

The roar that greeted the final note was a sharp contrast to the lackluster applause they'd received all night. As the crowd cried for more, he looked to the man who'd inspired him, cocking his head in question.

A shy smile spilled across the pale face, and then the blond nodded and joined the others around him in clapping.

Temporarily at a loss, Dan searched his repertoire for a suitable piece. He was a good deal more familiar with the music of that period than many of his contemporaries might be, but he only had a guitar and drum to work with on compositions intended to keep an entire orchestra occupied.

He settled on <i>Take The A Train</i>. When that had wended to its inevitable conclusion, Dan knew he hadn't succeeded quite as well with this translation, but the majority of his audience hadn't seemed to notice if their applause was anything to go by.

A little uncertain, he sought the opinion of the one listener astute enough to judge the difference.

He could find no disappointment in those clear blue eyes, just a deep, glowing pleasure.

"I think that's it for now, folks," Dan announced, grinning like a half-wit as he placed his Stratocaster on the guitar rack. "We'll be back after a short break."

"Jesus-fuckin'-Christ"' Rich shouted, practically leaping over his traps to get to him. As the shaggy-headed brunet enfolded him in a hug and lifted him off his feet, Dan felt as if he were being embraced by a grizzly. The drummer maintained a claw-hold on his shoulders as he bounced Dan back onto his feet. "That rift you did on the bugle solo was incredible. Clapton couldn't have done better. What was that?"

"Yeah, what the fuck was that?" another voice demanded in a completely different tone, taking the edge off Dan's enthusiasm.

Dan turned to the enraged keyboardist, recognizing that he'd never realized how ugly Joey's dissolute face could look when furious.

"Cool it, Joe. You didn't even know what song we were up to," Dan said, in no mood to argue when his fellow musician was in this state.

"I know it wasn't a blast from the past," Joey snarled.

"What do you call what we've been doin' all night? Not one fuckin' number was written after 1980!" Dan protested.

"Danny Boy, you're pushin' it. I don't need this kinda shit from you," Joey said.

"Don't call me that," Dan warned, his body going very still.

"You used to love when I called you that," Joey sneered, taking visible pleasure from hurting him.

Dan stared into those red-rimmed, gray eyes, trying to find the laughing, cocky boy who'd seduced him so long ago. They were the same age, just turned twenty, but Joey looked at least ten years older. A very rough ten years.

"That was a long time ago." Dan said.

Finding nothing but pity in his heart for this shell of what could have been a great musician, Dan turned away.

"I'm talking to you, Danny Boy," Joey shouted, grabbing his arm.

Dan looked out over the audience, grateful for the canned music that had so annoyed him earlier. Most of the crowd was oblivious to what was transpiring on the stage, gyrating to Aerosmith's latest. Relieved, he saw that his blond friend was nowhere in sight. A quick scan of the crowd located his puzzling acquaintance over near the door with their host and two other real winners.

"Hey, come on, Joey. Lighten up," Rich soothed, trying to intercede. "It worked. The crowd liked it. That's all that counts."

"Fuck off. This is between Mister Wonderful and me. Go get yourself a beer. Go on, clear out!" Joey finished with a shout so shrill it sounded close to a shriek.

Rich moved off the stage only after receiving Dan's consenting nod.

"Guess this is as good a time as any to have this out," Dan decided, staring down at his wasted, fellow band member.

"Where the fuck do you get off pulling that kinda shit? This is my band. I started it. I say what we play and when we play it. lf it weren't for me pullin' your red ass outta that hick town, you'd still be pumpin' gas for a livin'!"

It was too much. At the words <i>red ass</i>, Dan felt something snap inside.

"You son of a bitch!" Dan roared, shaking at what it was costing him to hold this to the verbal level. But he held back, knowing that if he touched that smirking demon with this hatred inside, it wouldn't be finished until the smaller man was dead. "You've pissed away every bit of talent you had with that fuckin' blow! You're sinkin' fast and you're draggin' the rest of us down with you."

"You self-righteous shit! Where do you think you'd be without me? There's a guitarist on every corner lookin' for a ticket like the one I offered you! You're nothin' but an ingrate. A fuckin' halfbreed, red-assed. . . umphf. . . ."

With a sense of unreality, Dan stared at his fist – the fist now plastered in the center of Joey's realigned nose. They stood frozen that way for a timeless moment before the sandy-haired man's eyes rolled up in his head and his knees buckled.

Dan automatically caught and lowered the sagging Joey to the floor.

"Shit." Not believing what had just happened – Joey's unthinking cruelty and his own violent response to it – Dan sucked on his bleeding knuckle and considered his options.

They'd fought before when Joey was stoned, but never this viciously, and never physically. If the keyboardist ran true to form, he wouldn't even recall tonight's argument.

But Dan would remember it. Always.

Seeing this fight as the last gasp of the band with the same name, Dan carefully packed up his Stratocaster and unplugged his amp.

"What the hell you doin', Dan?" Lenny demanded, returning to the stage with a half-empty bottle of vodka in hand.

"What's it look like?"

"Shit. What happened to Joey?" The bass player wobbled over to the prone pianist, prodding him with the bottle.

Dan ignored him as he left the stage.

"You really through with him this time, Danno?" Richie's voice asked from the shadows behind an oversized speaker.

"He had it comin', Richie," Dan said.

"Yeah." There was no argument from that quarter. "What'll you do now?"

"I don't know." Inside he was numb, but it was the sort of hollowness that promised to turn to pain before much longer. Dan wanted to be alone when the buffering shield wore through.

"If I can get your cut from Joey, I'll drop it off tomorrow," Rich promised, prosaic as ever. "We'll talk then."

"Talk?" Dan asked warily. He was not coming back after tonight. Ever.

"About startin' somethin' new. You don't think I'm stayin' with this lot if you're not playing? That is, if you don't mind the company?"

His eyes stinging, he glanced away. "Thanks, Rich. You're the best."

"S mutual."

"I'm takin' my van. If you don't leave with me, you're gonna be stranded. I can help you take your traps apart if you want."

"Think I'll hang around for the fireworks. Sleepin' Beauty there ain't gonna be out for long. Things should get real interesting when he wakes up and realizes what a fuckin' moron he's been. I think you should be somewhere else by then, though, don't you?" Rich suggested.

"Another galaxy would be too close for my liking. I really wanted to kill him, Rich. He's not the Joey. . . ."

"Yeah, I know," Richie soothed when Dan faltered. "Go on. Go home and put some ice on those knuckles."

"Yeah. See you around." Dan pulled himself together and hurried toward the double doors at the far end of the gallery as fast as the dancing crowd, his heavy amp, and awkward guitar case would permit.

About ten feet short of the exit, he stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the straight-backed figure before him.

In all the excitement with Joey, he'd forgotten about the nameless blond he'd met.

The man stood with his back to Dan now, at the foot of a staircase he was apparently trying to ascend. His way was being blocked by two of the guests the guitarist had noticed earlier – a burly strong-arm type and a thinner, weasel-faced man in a black leather jacket. Both were stoned or drunk. Off to their left, their host, Cleveland Carstairs, looked on with an approving smirk.

"Come on, Brookie. You wanta get upstairs, all you gotta do is say 'please'."

The pause that followed the taunt was prolonged.

Taking in the blond's ramrod-straight back, Dan thought he had rarely seen anyone look so alone.

"Please let me get my coat," Dan's good Samaritan asked softly, his very tone pleading to be left alone.

Dan winced, recognizing these types.

"Say 'pretty please," the ape behind the obvious ringleader taunted.

Stony silence met the demand.

Seeing that wasn't going to work, the weasel in charge took up the gauntlet. "Poor, poor Brookie. Your little freakoid girlfriend dumped you, huh? Couldn't even keep a freak satisfied, could you, Brookie? What's the matter? Don't your little weenie work? Or maybe you just discovered you don't like girls after all, huh?"

The guffaws that followed were enough to draw Dan out of his shocked stasis. Leaving his guitar and amp by the door out of harm's way, he straightened to his full height. Deciding he'd heard enough, he stepped into the foyer, silently taking up a position behind his persecuted benefactor. With grim satisfaction, Dan watched the cruel glee fade from the taunters' faces as they tried to figure him out.

"What is this – Night of the Assholes?" Dan demanded, his voice dripping his contempt.

Surprisingly, it was his blond acquaintance, presumably named Brooks, who reacted strongest to his entry. The shorter man swung around, an expression of the most horrified mortification Dan had ever seen freezing his features. For a moment the ridiculed man simply stared at Dan, his wind-burned cheeks turning even redder with humiliation. Then, all emotion blanked completely from his features. A determined dignity seemed to settle over the blond before he turned and walked out the door without uttering a word to anyone.

Beginning to understand why the man had seemed terrified of the world before, Dan turned back to the low-life responsible for the scene.

"Now look what you've done," Weasel-face berated. "Why couldn't you mind your own fuckin' business?"

"Maybe I just don't like bullies," Dan said, meeting those malicious eyes.

"What do you know about it? Weasel snarled."

"Oh, right. So you tell me, macho man: What did the kid do that scared you so bad that you needed your two buddies to gang up on him?" Dan demanded.

'Why, you. . . I ain't scared of that little dweeb. He's just a tight-assed little sissy boy beggin' for it," Weasel-face said.

"Yeah, he's a few bricks short a full load, if you know what I mean," the strong-arm seconded his leader.

"You mental giants would know, I guess," Dan sneered.

"Who you callin' a mental giant?" the ape-man blustered.

Their wiry host intervened as the huge man moved to lunge at Dan. "Can it, Steve. Can't have you damagin' the entertainment. This isn't your fight, music man." Carstairs' cruel face turned in Dan's direction.

Dan considered the odds and the fact that the man he was defending had already made his escape. "Yeah, you're right. I'm outta here."

He retrieved his guitar and amp, and walked toward the front door.

"Hey," Cleveland called, "where you goin'? I paid your manager a quarter of a key for the whole night!"

Dan sighed, not really surprised. He should have guessed as much. "Well, maybe you can get a refund by draining his sinuses. I ain't seen a dime for tonight's work, so I'm walkin'. Have a good life." Pushing his amp out the open door with his foot, he slammed it closed behind him.

The night air hit his overheated skin like a wave of liquid ice. Shivering in his thin jeans jacket and sleeveless tee shirt, Dan hurried to his van.

He didn't know who the bigger moron was – Joey or himself. Considering all that had gone down between them in the past two years, Dan decided that it was he himself who deserved that dubious honor – Joey at least had the excuse of being a hopeless cokehead; whereas, he was nothing but a Class A jerk. A stupid, besotted. . . .

A stray glance over to the west as Dan reached to stow his guitar case in the back of his van stilled all thought.

The lake was much more visible from the parking area than it had been from the garden out back. As Dan watched, a dark shadow stepped resolutely out onto the water's frozen surface, slipping and sliding determinedly toward the center where an unfrozen, shadowy area could still be seen.

<i>Who the fuck. . . ?</i>

Anybody with half a brain had to know that the ice wasn't thick enough to support a man's weight. This was the first significant snowfall they'd had all year. It was only the middle of November. Even several hundred yards away Dan could see that the ice wasn't solid.

As Dan watched, the crust gave way. The crazed stroller went under. . . and was not even trying to get back out!

Dropping his Strat into the snow, Dan took off at a dead run. His beat-up sneakers were soaked within seconds as he stumbled through the ankle-deep frozen powder. It seemed to take an eternity before he made the lake, his heart drumming as if it would burst from within his chest.

He skidded to a halt, considering how best to approach a rescue. Realizing there wasn't time for anything elaborate, he threw up a prayer to his ancestors and stepped out onto the slick, slippery surface.

Moving as fast as safety would allow, he approached the hole where the fool had fallen through. Flattening himself to the heat-leeching surface, Dan shimmied out the last few feet on his belly, feeling the ice crackle ominously beneath him.

His entire body stinging with the cold, he plunged his arm into the freezing water, reaching down deep, deeper. Almost as far as he could extend his hand, he felt something soft, less cold than the water. His fingers too numb to identify what he'd contacted, Dan gripped hard and struggled up to his knees, grunting as he hauled his weighty burden out of the water.

Halfway through his rescue, he was certain the ice beneath him was going to give way. But, although it groaned in protest, cracks forming with alarming rapidity, the surface held.

Dan almost didn't have the strength to retrieve what he could now see was a body. A panicked pull as his catch felt as though it would slide back into its icy grave managed to haul the dead weight clear.

Sobbing his relief, Dan deposited the soaked form onto the ice.

It was with no sense of real surprise that he viewed his blond acquaintance's deathly-white face as he rolled the body over. Subconsciously, he'd known who it was out here the instant he'd seen the shadow on the ice.

His fingers stinging so bad from the merciless cold that they felt burned, Dan checked his good Samaritan for a pulse. Slick and cold, the throat felt motionless at first, but finally he detected a feeble throb.

Calloused fingers shaking uncontrollably, Dan pinched the nostrils of the upturned nose tightly closed. He pushed his right forefinger into the blond's mouth to make sure the passage was clear, before withdrawing it to administer mouth-to-mouth.

Nothing happened for the longest time as he tried to breathe life back into the frighteningly-still body. Nevertheless, Dan struggled on, his lungs ready to burst from the effort. Then, quite suddenly, the frozen blond's esophagus convulsed and he began choking.

Dan pulled his mouth clear fast, turning the shorter man onto his side to ease the effort of retching. With his free hand he supported the blond's head, keeping that soft, chilled skin clear of the adhesive ice surface as the man puked up his guts. It seemed gallons of water spewed out the gasping mouth, then the guy's dinner, and quite possibly everything else he'd eaten in the past six weeks.

Beginning to feel slightly nauseous himself, Dan waited out the spasms.

The retching wound to a halt, but the drenched body was shuddering so fiercely from the cold that it took Dan almost a full minute to determine that fact.

Realizing that the other man's stomach was empty at last, he rolled the blond over onto his back, still supporting his head with his palm.

The full lips were blue-tinged and cracked from the cold. Moonlight turned the round, normally pale face an eerie white. <i>Drowned man's flesh</i>, Dan thought.

Light-lashed eyelids fluttered open. Abject terror, confounded by physical agony, stared up at Dan from confused eyes. "Uhh. Help m-m--me. P-P-Pleezzz…."

"It's g-gonna be al-all right," Dan promised as the blond's eyes sank closed again.

Garnering his strength, Dan reached out to pull the other man into a fireman's carry, pausing as a piece of wet paper that had been plastered to the blond's hand fell onto the ice. Dan peeled the paper off, stuck it in his inside jacket pocket and lumbered to his feet.

The following minutes were the longest, most miserable of his life, the trip back to the van a grueling, laborious test of his stamina. Nearly as soaked as his unconscious burden, Dan's clothes felt as if they were freezing to his skin. His lungs screamed in agony at the strain he was putting upon them, his toes and stinging ears hurting so bad that he couldn't keep the tears from running down his cheeks.

Twice he had to stop. The second time he was barely able to lift his companion again. Sobbing in agony, Dan staggered blindly into the side of his hand-painted psychedelic van.

No longer capable of caution, he unceremoniously dumped his burden to the ground, frozen fingers going through his jacket pocket for the keys. If he'd lost them back in that snow. . . .

A painful jab located the keys behind the extra capo he always carried. Three tries and he had the front door open.

Dan stared down at the unconscious blond crumpled at his feet, abruptly at a loss as to what he should do. Dan knew he wasn't up to carrying the kid back to the house. If he leaned on the horn long enough, a drunken partier might eventually take enough interest to investigate. But what kind of help would the blond receive from that crowd?

Coming to one of the abrupt decisions that were characteristic of his impulsive nature, Dan decided that he'd handle it himself.

He shoved the keys in the ignition, turning the heater up full blast.

The touch of that hot air against his frozen skin was the most intense physical agony he'd ever experienced, worse even than when his stepfather had kicked him in the balls before tossing his wife's half-breed, prissy-boy son out onto the street.

Cursing helped take his mind off the burning pain. Dan kept up a steady stream of creative, breathless cussing as he stepped out into the frigid night to drag the unconscious man to the back of the van.

Dan fell through the van doors himself once he got them parted. Reaching down, he snagged the soggy lapels of his charge's suit and pulled him in after him. His heart thumping like Rich's wildest drum solo, he slammed the van doors shut behind them with a sense of triumph.

For a moment Dan just sat there, collecting his breath as he gazed down at the cause of all this discomfort.

Seeing that the soaked clothing the unconscious man wore was now beginning to steam, streaming water onto the rug, Dan stirred himself. The mess aside, Dan figured it probably wouldn't do to leave his charge in wet garments. If he didn't have frostbite already, he was sure to if he weren't warmed up soon.

Forcing his stiff fingers to move, Dan clumsily undid the suit jacket buttons, realizing then that the other man had been so upset that he'd left the house without his overcoat. The buttons of the formerly white shirt were even more difficult. Dan ended up simply ripping the shirt ends apart, sending little white buttons popping off in all directions. He fought the clinging undershirt off over rag-doll slack arms, wondering if the fish-belly white tone of the under-developed chest and shoulders visible even in the van's gloom were the other man's natural color or if frostbite had already set in.

Remembering hearing somewhere that frostbite turned flesh black, not white, Dan relaxed somewhat.

Tossing the undershirt onto the sodden discard pile, he fumbled with the pants' fastening. A smile cracked his chaffed lips as the wet pants cleared the blond's hips. Somehow, he'd just know the other man would be wearing boxer shorts.

He felt strange undressing the man like this.

It wasn't like he was going to accost the kid while he was unconscious. Christ, the way he was feeling right now he couldn't get it up if his life depended on it.

Still, he was attracted to this man for some inexplicable reason and felt odd about doing this.

Trying hard not to look, Dan gripped the soggy waistband and peeled the oversized cotton shorts away. Inevitably, his gaze strayed to the region revealed.

Unlike Dan himself, the blond had been circumcised. Even here he was unnaturally pale, the flaccid cock seeming almost white against the ginger-blond thatch at its base.

Shaking himself back to the task at hand, Dan reached over Rich's extra amp for the blankets the group usually used to keep warm while driving to distant gigs. He wound all four around the unconscious blond, rolling him until he was wrapped tight as a newborn in swaddling with only his face showing.

Assured that the unconscious man was as comfortable as he could make him, Dan crawled to the driver's seat. He had the lights on and was ready to roll when he remembered his poor Stratocaster out in all that snow. Deciding that the night was well and truly cursed, Dan once again braved its vicious night. Ears, fingers. toes, nose – everything – stung in the brutal cold. Clutching the case to his chest like a lost child, he stumbled back to the van.

Inside, he couldn't help but check his instrument, worrying about the effects of the icy weather on his dearest friend. Like everything else he owned, the case was old and second-hand. If the Fender were damaged, he'd never be able to raise the cash to repair, let alone replace it.

Holding his breath, Dan steeled himself and looked, almost passing out under the resultant rush of relief. Nestled within its black velvet bed, his maroon and chrome beauty was untouched by the elements, glinting as enticingly as she had the first time he'd seen her in his teacher's hands.

Counting his blessings, Dan secured the case and put it in the passenger seat.

Forty minutes later the van trundled to a stop in front of his apartment building. Not quite believing that he was really home after all the horrors of the night, Dan just sat there behind the wheel for a good minute or two, considering his next move.

He'd never be able to unlock his apartment door while carrying his companion's dead weight. His best bet was to bring the guitar and amp up first, leave the door open, then return for the blond. The van was warm enough now. His neighborhood wasn't the greatest, but Montreal didn't have the crime problem most cities its size did. The guy should be all right alone for a few minutes.

Eight minutes later Dan kicked the door to his flat closed behind him, passed through the beads separating the living room and bedroom areas, lumbered over to the unmade double bed and dumped his charge onto its sagging surface.

Not liking the other man's continued stillness, Dan checked for a pulse again. From what he could tell, it felt strong and steady, the blond's unlabored breathing sounding like that of normal deep sleep.

Judging from those heavy circles bagging the eyes, the guy really needed the rest. Even earlier Dan had noted how exhausted his new acquaintance looked, as if he hadn't slept in weeks.

Feeling the weight of the night himself, Dan stripped out of his own damp clothes. Skin that had been burning bright was now merely an abnormally bright red. Aside from tired aching muscles, he felt pretty good.

The drive home had been torture though, as circulation returned. The blond was lucky he'd been unconscious throughout it. Dan shuddered to think how bad his companion's experience would have been after his dunking and near-drowning. They were both lucky to be alive.

One of them had been incredibly lucky, Dan reflected. If he'd been delayed just two minutes more, he never would have seen the other man crash through the ice.

For the first time that night Dan had the leisure to wonder what had compelled the blond to try to take his own life, for he knew it couldn't have been an accident. The blond had walked out onto that frozen lake with a clear sense of purpose.

Surely, the scene in the hall with those two assholes hadn't been enough to send the blond hurrying to his death? No one could be that unstable. Could they?

Pondering the events of the night, Dan extinguished the lights, covered his already mummified house guest with the bedclothes, and climbed in at the far side of the bed.

His exhausted, muscle-strained body screamed its joy as the mattress embraced him. His last clear thought was that he'd forgotten to lock the door behind them.

*~*~*

"Mmmm…." Ninety percent asleep, Dan snuggled into the living warmth at his side. His mouth and nose burrowed into baby fine, sweet-scented hair, his hips pushing in tight against an accommodatingly fleshy butt.

So good. The fit was perfect.

His calloused fingertips stroked along a lightly-downed chest to the swell of belly. Impeded by a tight tangle of bedclothes, Dan struggled to slip his hand in for lower exploration.

Only as his frustration at not being able to do so penetrated his sleep-fogged mind did Dan realize what he was about to do.

Dan jerked up in the bed as if scalded by the contact, staring down at his bedmate in stupefied horror.

How the hell was he going to explain. . . . ?

The rush of panic ebbed as he took in his companion's undisturbed slumber. The kid was still dead to the world. The bikers living downstairs could've come in and screwed him into the mattress and the sleeper would probably have remained oblivious.

Thanking providence, Dan calmed, looking down in wonder at the man beside him. This was the first clear view he'd had of his new friend in full light. Perhaps it was merely the tranquility of sleep which was responsible, but those pallid features appeared almost achingly innocent. Without his hair greased back, and fluffed around his forehead as it now was, Dan's unexpected houseguest appeared about four years old. Curled on his side, his full lips parted, cheeks rosy from sleep or the elements, the blond was an intensely moving sight.

Dan shook his head, exasperated by his own uncharacteristic sentimentality. This wasn't like him at all. In the countless times he'd awoken next to Joey or any of his other casual lovers, he'd never once gone this sappy over watching them sleep. Arousal, an artist's appreciation of form, and physical beauty, even the occasional morning's disbelief at his lack of taste. . . these he could accept and knew how to handle. This softness inside was new to him.

Wondering what the hell he'd gotten himself into, Dan climbed from the bed and set about preparing breakfast at a time he was normally considering lunch.

Three hours later the winter sun had set. Night stole over the small apartment as though it had never ceded to daylight. By Dan's estimation his houseguest had now been asleep for almost sixteen hours.

As he sat in a hard-backed chair on the opposite side of the room, picking out a soft melody on his battered old acoustic while waiting for his visitor to stir, Dan couldn't help but feel sorry for the guy.

The crumpled note he'd found stuffed in his soggy jacket pocket – the piece of paper the blond had been clutching when Dan had pulled him from the lake – had explained much. A Dear John letter with a vengeance. Clichéd and to the point, it had read:


<i>Dear Brooks,
This is hard for me to do after all we've meant to each other. I
know you didn't want me to come to Europe alone. In a way, / wish I
hadn't because hurting you is the last thing I'd ever want to do. But I
can't help it.

I'm not coming back, Brooks. Not for a long time. I've met someone. He's like me, only he sees the world so differently. He wants to marry me. We're going to Paris together, then on to Rome. But I guess you don't want to hear about that.

I'm sorry to do this to you. Please believe that. I love you, but not the same way I love Stan.

You're a very special person, Brooks, and you'll always be the first with me. Nothing will change that.
I hope you can forgive me someday.

Please be happy.
Anne


Please be happy</i>. That line had brought a snort of disbelief to Dan. She kicks the world out from under the guy and then tells him to be happy about it. Another real winner.

Remembering how those three jerks at the party last night had made sport of the younger man's loss, Dan found himself aching with sympathy for the sensitive blond. Why Brooks had voluntarily subjected himself to the party was something he was going to have to wait to find out. Maybe Brooks had just been looking for a distraction from the pain which had cloaked him like an invisible, but tenable shroud. Dan had sensed that hurt the moment they'd met in the garden.

Was he thinking about doing it then, Dan wondered, realizing now that their meeting might have interrupted an earlier suicide attempt. Had Brooks been standing out there alone in the arctic cold of the rose garden steeling up his nerve to permanently drown his troubles?

As Dan considered these and similar questions, his fingers trickled over the steel strings, moving on from the folk tune to one of his own compositions, an almost eerie, pseudo-Elizabethan air.

He was halfway through the second verse when he detected a change in the sleeper.

From his vantage point Dan could only see his visitor's profile, really no more than the left eye, tip of nose and corner of mouth, as Brooks was facing the wall.

The pale eyelids fluttered like hummingbird wings before parting. Brooks blinked, then seemed to stare up at the Robert Plant poster on the right wall beside the bed. It was Dan's favorite. Almost fifteen years old. The Knebworth shot with the live dove held close to Plant's bare belly and bulging crotch.

Were their positions reversed, Dan might have freaked at waking up in such strange surroundings after a traumatic experience like last night's near-drowning, but Brooks remained almost abnormally calm. He appeared to systematically survey every decoration and furnishing that came within his line of vision as his gaze slowly moved toward Dan.

Dan wondered what it must be like for the conservative youth to wake up here. His apartment was a living monument to the forgotten ideals and innocence of the 60s. Peace signs, Flower Power decals, anti-war paraphernalia, and rock memorabilia crowded the walls and furniture so that the lack of luxury was barely noticed amid the visual overload.

Brooks' light blue gaze lingered for a tong moment on the shimmering strings of beads and sea shells which separated the bedroom and living room areas, as if captured by the rainbow display of refracted light. Then the eyes passed on to Dan himself, revealing remarkably little emotion.

"Where am I?" Brooks croaked at last.

Dan stopped playing.

"You're alive." Dan let those two words express his feelings on that matter.

Brooks' gaze dropped sheepishly at the near-accusation.

"I thought I was dead," Brooks whispered.

"You almost were. You'd stopped breathing by the time I got to you. How do you feel?" Dan asked, belatedly realizing that perhaps this was not the time to go into what had happened.

'Thirsty."

Dan carefully leaned his guitar against the wall and strode to the kitchen, feeling those strangely disturbing eyes upon him the whole way.

"Thanks." Sitting up in the bed, Brooks acknowledged the offered orange juice, his voice so soft as to be almost a whisper.

They watched each other's eyes as Brooks drank his juice, the atmosphere heavy with a sense of waiting.

"Who are you?" Brooks spoke at last.

Chuckling at how weird that question felt after the night they'd spent, Dan had to remind himself that his companion had been unconscious for the better part of that time. "Daniel Strong Hand."

"Strong Hand?"

"Yeah. My dad was a Stoney." Reading the unfamiliarity in those expressive eyes, Dan clarified, "Indians up in Alberta Province."

"Oh."

"My mom and stepfather are almost as fair as you, though." Dan figured he'd best get the worst over first. There had been no reaction to the revelation of his father's heritage – as if his skin color could leave any doubt about his parentage – but it was funny how people were sometimes. Prejudice could be very unpredictable. Often people able to accept a full-blooded Indian as a novelty would have trouble dealing with a breed.

"Stepfather?"

That wasn't the inquiry Dan had anticipated. "Yeah. My dad died when I was four."

Dan shied away from the sympathy which softened the other's features.

"My mom went away when 1 was a baby," Brooks offered in exchange, his eyes seeming to say that he'd understood Dan's unstated pain.

"Went away?" Dan gently probed, watching the pale gaze drop to the blankets.

"No one would ever tell me why."

"That's rough." Not liking the closely guarded hurt shuttering the other man's features, Dan tried to change the subject. "Your name is Brooks, right?"

"Yes."

"So how are your fingers and toes, Brooks?"

"What?" That got the other man's attention, his companion now watching Dan as if he were slightly deranged.

"That ice bath you took last night. Mine are still a little stiff and I wasn't even fully in the water."

"I'm sorry," Brooks said, appearing stricken.

"Skip it. I guess I shoulda taken you to a hospital, but. . . ." Unable to explain why he hadn't made the unconscious blond someone else's problem, Dan offered a lesser truth, ". . . l wasn't thinking very clearly myself."

"No hospital,"' Brooks practically pleaded. "I feel . . . okay. . please…."

Taken aback by the raw panic, Dan tried to calm his guest. "Hey, take it easy, man. It's a little late for hospitals now."

Bemused, he saw the trapped animal fear fade from the other man's face. Wondering what he was dealing with here. Dan softly asked, "Are you scared of hospitals?"

Brooks seemed scared of everything.

Brooks' gaze dropped again. For the longest time it seemed he wasn't going to reply, then he looked back up and answered, his tone and attitude that of a confession. "They were going to put me away last summer. I don't want to give them any more reason than they've already got."

"Put you away? Who?" Dan questioned, his worry no longer tentative.

"My father and his shrink friend. They wanted to put me in a sanitarium."

"What for?" Had Dan given any thought to it, he probably wouldn't have voiced that question, common sense dictating that he avoid such a volatile subject with a possibly dangerous stranger. After all, what did he know about this guy? The kid could a psychotic axe murderer or a raging sadist, for all Dan knew. Yet, that didn't feel right to him. Brooks seemed mixed up and intensely troubled, but not dangerous. Least ways, not to anyone but himself.

"For being. . . weird. I like things that weren't acceptable to their aesthetic standards."

"Such as?" Dan questioned.

"40s' music."

'They were gonna lock you up for liking old music?"

'No, the music was weird, but not that bad. It was the dog dirt and mannequin that really upset them," Brooks explained.

"Dog dirt and mannequin?" Dan echoed blankly.

"Yeah, I. . . ahh. . . like to take pictures of dog dirt and hang them up in my room. My father's a strict conservative. Very big on appearances. The pictures would drive him wild," Brooks said.

Dan chuckled, the idea tickling his perverse sense of humor.

"What about the mannequin?" Dan asked with a smile, starting to like this unusual individual.

As Brooks absorbed his reaction, the blond became noticeably less wary. "I have a motorcycle with a side seat. I used to dress the mannequin up and ride around with it. One time I dressed the dummy up like my father's last girlfriend, Mimi. I put a horrible red wig on her like Mimi's hair, lots of makeup, one of the jump suits she always wore. One day, when Mimi was in my bedroom bothering me, I hung the mannequin from the rafter." The younger man seemed to think about it for a moment before admitting almost apologetically, "I didn't like Mimi very much. '

"I'll bet." Dan grinned, no longer even trying to hide his laughter.

"You don't think that's sick?"

Those wide, serious eyes calmed his merriment. "Freudian, maybe. But sick? Shit, sounds like those people have no sense of humor."

"You don't think I'm weird?" Brooks asked.

Dan shrugged, making a point of pushing his long hair back. The silken black length fell halfway down his back and brought him a lot of heat depending on where he was. Yet, Brooks hadn't once commented on his dramatic appearance. "People who live in glass houses and all that shit."

"What?"

"I don't know you well enough to make that kind of judgment. I'll tell you straight out that I think what you did last night was fuckin' stupid, but we all make mistakes. That's what life's about," Dan said.

"Not where I come from," Brooks said.

"Not allowed to make mistakes, huh?" Dan guessed, Brooks' entire attitude already having told him that.

Brooks shrugged. His features had hardened into a defensive set, but the front only made him appear all the more vulnerable.

"You're okay, Brooks," Dan decided. "You hungry?"

The change in subject brought a brightening of expression. "Yes."

"Good. I'll get us some dinner."

"Need some help?"

"Nope. Sit tight. I'll bring it in here."

"Daniel?" Brooks called as Dan made to exit the room.

"My friends call me 'Dan'. The only lime I'm 'Daniel' is when you're pissed at me," Dan said, pleased by the smile he received, sweet and shy like the blond himself.

"Dan?"

"Yeah?"

"Where are my clothes?"

"Down in the van. Probably frozen solid by now." Realizing something else he'd omitted, Dan belatedly asked, "Do you want to call home? Your family's probably worried sick by now."

"My father's on vacation in the Riviera for the next three weeks. It's just me and my brother. He probably hasn't even noticed I'm missing yet." A thoughtful pause followed before Brooks asked, "Do you want me to go? I know I've been a lot of trouble to you."

"Fuck that. I was glad of the company." Even a comatose companion was better than being left alone with the memory of last night's fight. Joey had said a lot of things that would have really hurt if he'd had the time to dwell on them. Grueling as his midnight rescue had been, it had kept his mind off his former lover.

"Yeah?" Brooks appeared unconvinced, or maybe it was just Dan's language that bothered him.

Whatever the cause of that uncertainty, Dan found himself wanting to dispel it. "Yeah. You weren't the only one who had a bad night. My band broke up."

"l'm sorry," Brooks said, sounding as though he meant it.

Dan shrugged off the sympathy. "It's been brewing a long time. It shouldn't have come as a surprise."

"But it did?"

Dan nodded.

"What happened?" Brooks asked softly, almost as if he expected censure for his concern.

Normally, Dan wasn't one to discuss his personal problems, even with close friends. But there was something about Brooks' tentative approach that made him reluctant to offer discouragement of any kind. "Too much coke, too much booze, not enough practice."

"Not you," Brooks objected, there seeming to be no doubt in his attitude about that fact.

'No." Dan smiled. "My vices aren't of a chemical nature. How 'bout I get us that food?" He suggested, the conversation cutting too close to his pain.

"Okay."

"Hey, take it slow," Dan cautioned twenty minutes later as his guest wolfed down a ham sandwich and hot bowl of tomato soup. "You haven't eaten in almost 24 hours. Don't want it to come back up again, do you? I had enough of that last night."

"Hmmm?" Brooks managed between voracious bites. The tray balanced on his blanket-draped lap was almost empty already.

"Don't you remember bein' sick last night? You scared the shit outta me."

Brooks shook his head. "All I remember is looking up at you and thinking I was dead. It was so cold. Then I woke up here, warm and to music."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Dan asked cautiously. Then. because he thought it might make it easier for Brooks, he admitted, "I found Anne's note in your hand."

Brooks froze, his gaze darting to Dan's face then back to his empty soup plate. 'Then you know the whole story."

Sensing he was being closed out again, Dan took a stronger stance. "I know you broke up with your girl. That doesn't tell me what you were doing out there on that ice."

"You know what I was doing out there."

Unnerved by the calm assertion, Dan persevered. "But I don't know why."

"Does it matter?"

Angered now, Dan slammed his own empty plate down onto the night table, the violence of the gesture shaking both the lamp and the man in his bed. "You bet it does. I risked my hands pullin' you outta that fuckin' hole."

"I didn't ask you to. You shoulda just left me there."

Horrified, Dan watched those huge blue eyes fill with tears.

"No girl's worth that. I don't care who she is,' Dan said more gently, removing the tray from Brooks' lap, trying to restore some vestige of calm.

"S-she was the only one who ever . . . liked me," Brooks whispered, fighting his tears, appearing so forlorn that Dan wished he'd had the sense to leave the subject alone.

"That's not true," Dan protested. "I like you."

"You don't even know me," Brooks denied.

"I know enough to know that I like you and that I don't want to see you throw your whole fuckin' life away because of some girl."

"She wasn't just some girl. I – I loved her." The defiant declaration ended on a sob.

"I know you did," Dan soothed.

"She was the only friend I ever had. She made me strong. Without her . . . ."

"Without her it'll be harder for a while, but you'll feel strong again. It just takes time," Dan said.

Anyone else would have attacked at such a patronizing line. Dan waited for the anticipated <i>How would you know?</i> or something of the sort, but fighting didn't seem to be a part of Brooks' nature. Those wounded eyes just stared their pain at him, trapping Dan's wary heart with their vulnerability.

"Brooks, you're not the only guy who's ever been kicked in the teeth by someone he loves. It happens to everyone sooner or later. You can't go killin' yourself 'cause someone needs something different than what you've got to offer. You've got a good heart and you love hard, or you wouldn't've thought of doin' such a stupid thing. Some day you'll meet someone smart enough to appreciate what you've got."

The tears were flowing nonstop now, silent rivers of silver sweeping down ashen cheeks.

On impulse, Dan reached out to touch the other man as Brooks turned to hide his tears from him. Dan wasn't sure how it happened, but he found himself on the side of the bed holding the shaking body as Brooks sobbed his heart out against Dan's Byrd's tee shirt.

Brooks felt good in his arms, so much so that the normally reserved Dan found it easy to offer the required comfort. Rocking the grief-stricken man, Dan tried to concentrate only on Brooks' needs and not on how sensually satisfying that smooth back felt beneath his rubbing palm. Yet, for all his attempts at virtue, Dan was intensely conscious of the other man's nudity, of the pale, fleshy cheek sticking out of the blanket just below where he could safely allow his palm to venture.

With a mixed sense of disappointment and relief, Dan felt Brooks regain control a considerable time later. He let go the instant the other man pulled back, studying the reddened face with unfeigned concern. "Feel better?"

Eyes that had looked almost scared relaxed, warmth filling them at whatever they read in Dan's often inscrutable features.

"Yeah," Brooks admitted, sounding surprised. "I do. Thanks. No one's ever . . . ."

Wondering what kind of monsters had hurt this gentle-hearted manchild so much in the past that he'd so fear accepting comfort, Dan dismissed the thanks. "That's what friends are for."

"You want me for your friend?" Brooks questioned as if the very idea was unthinkable.

He wanted him for a lot more than his friend, but Dan didn't think it wise to admit that. The kid had enough problems already. "Very much."

The shy, but pleased smile that earned him shot right through the Dan's usually standoffish innards, leaving him uncomfortably soft inside.

<i>What was it about this kid?</i> Dan wondered. Brooks could only be a year or two younger than him, but he felt centuries older. There was something about that wounded innocence, that vulnerability, that aroused Dan's protective instincts. Brooks seemed so alone, so intensely unhappy. Dan wanted to change all that, to replace the sorrow with joy, the fear with confidence.

But he sensed how desperately Brooks wanted to be liked. There was a danger in that, he knew. Brooks was a walking invitation to heartbreak and misuse. Until the guy found himself and got his head on straight, anything outside of the platonic could be damaging to his fragile ego.

One friend in his whole life, Dan remembered.

Christ. Even as a half breed outcast in a predominantly bigoted, middle class neighborhood, Dan had always had more friends than that.

A yawn shattered Brooks' smile, reminding Dan of the traumatizing night his friend had spent. Maybe when he'd rested some more he'd feel better.

"Why don't you catch some sleep?" Dan suggested, easing the other man back onto the pillows. As he made to withdraw, surprisingly strong hands gripped his shoulders.

"Dan, I. . . ." The words faltered, Brooks gulped, seemingly at a loss as to what he wanted to say. But those expressive eyes spoke volumes. The hunger, the desperate longing for some human contact – Dan had never seen such an aching need turned on him. And, he'd be willing to swear that Brooks had no idea of what he was really asking for at that moment.

His insides melted at the contact, a shocking bolt of sheer desire flashed through his blood. Dan felt his mouth dry up, his heart thudding madly in his chest, his palms going very cold and damp as the rest of the room became inexplicably hot, the air around him suddenly thick and unbreathable.

Those eyes trapped Dan and held him, pulling him down with a cobra's mesmerizing power. What Brooks believed his beseeching gaze to be asking for, Dan didn't know, aware only that he was drowning in the deepest, most beautiful shade of blue he'd ever beheld.

Almost from a distance, he felt his lips cover that full mouth. Brooks' shocked gasp was drawn right into Dan's own body.

If the other man had remained so rigid, Dan might have come to his senses and withdrawn immediately. But when that resistance collapsed Brooks melting against him like spring's last snow, there was no way he could resist.

Instinct took over. Dan's tongue poked out to probe tentatively at the clenched lips. He could feel the untutored surprise in the other man's body, as if no one had ever done this to his companion before. After a moment's hesitation, Brooks' lips parted; the small sound he gave one of sheer animal pleasure.

Reeling under the intense passion that erupted with that single kiss, Dan reluctantly broke away, unable to believe what he'd just done.

"I'm sorry," Dan rasped, aware that there was no way he could make amends for his transgression. They'd been getting along so welt. Now the kid was going to think he was some kind of pervert.

The silence stretched.

Finally Brooks asked, "You're a homosexual?" His voice revealed none of his feelings on the matter.

Rattled more by his own lack of control than the incident itself, Dan found himself responding defensively. "Does that shock you?"

"No . . . I mean, yes. You don't seem. . . . ."

"What?" Dan demanded, sick at heart at how he'd screwed things up so soon. "A wimp?"

"I didn't mean it that way," Brooks softly protested, reaching out to touch Dan's arm as he sat up in the bed so that their eyes would be on a level.

Dan stared down at the hand. "What did you mean, then?"

"It's just. . . . you surprised me. My brother and his friends used to call me . . . queer all the time because I wasn't like them. But you're so. . . ."

"So . . . what?" Dan asked guardedly, ready to snap at the slightest of insults.

"You're so . . . cool. You're everything my brother and his friends would like to be."

Dan's eyes squeezed closed at the sincere appraisal, unable to believe that Brooks wasn't freaking out over what had happened.

"I ain't so cool," Dan denied. "And your brother sounds like a real asshole."

"He can be."

Dan hardly dared to breathe in the quiet that followed, aware only of the fact that Brooks' hand was still on his arm.

"Dan?"

"Yeah?" His response was nearly as tentative as the question. He'd never felt so vulnerable in his life. He wondered if Brooks knew what he was doing to him by holding on like this and talking gently instead of screaming in outraged, macho indignity as had happened the other two times in Dan's life that he'd gotten into this kind of situation with a straight man.

"Did you want to sleep with me?" Brooks asked.

Dan's entire body convulsed at the strangely unaccented question. Tossing sanity to the proverbial winds, he answered in utter honesty, "From the moment I first saw you."

Another of the pensive pauses that Dan was beginning to suspect were characteristic of the sensitive Brooks' nature followed, then Brooks asked, "Because you thought I was . . . gay, too?"

"Because I thought you were beautiful," Dan corrected, feeling the shiver his words engendered shake the inexperienced man's body. "Inside and out," Dan elaborated, using his free hand to lift Brooks' hand from his arm. He gave the sweaty palm a gentle squeeze before releasing it entirely. "I'm gonna go out into the living room and practice for a while, Brooks. Get some sleep. I'll spend the night on the couch," he lied.

There was no couch in what was basically a makeshift recording studio, not that he'd be doing any sleeping tonight.

"Don't go," Brooks pleaded, catching his arm.

Caught by the confused, pale gaze, Dan's throat constricted in a tight, painful knot. This time Brooks was aware of what his eyes and body were asking for.

Swallowing hard, Dan reminded himself of the dangers inherent in the situation. Brooks' unstable emotional state aside, the kid was straight and on the rebound. Any one of those three was an ingredient for inevitable disaster. All three at once? A guy would have to have a major death wish to tangle with that mix, or have been imbecilic enough to get trapped by those eyes.

"This ain't a game, Brooks, and I ain't made of stone. You don't know what you're playin' with here. Believe me, you don't need the head trip you're buying into," Dan warned.

Dan heard the gulp his warning inspired.

"'I need something," Brooks whispered, his voice ragged with emotion.

"You need a friend," Dan corrected, for his own benefit as much as Brooks'.

"You said you were my friend," Brooks reminded him.

"Which is why I'm gettin' outa here now. Look, Brooks, I like you. A lot. But I don't wanna use you, and that's what this would be."

"No, it wouldn't. You wouldn't hurt me," Brooks said.

"Not intentionally," Dan reluctantly agreed, wondering how his companion could sound so certain of that fact after the short time they'd known each other.

"Then why not?"

"Because you're confused right now. You don't know what you want."

"I want to feel the way you made me feel when you kissed me," Brooks argued, deadly serious. "It felt good, Dan. Real good."

Dan swallowed with difficulty and somehow found his voice. Christ, but he wanted him. "And what about tomorrow?" Tomorrow when cold morning light shattered this sweet innocence that was stealing his unwilling heart.

"Tomorrow?" Brooks echoed.

"When you wake up doubting your manhood. When you start hating me for what I did to you," Dan explained, his teeth gritting at how hard it was to continue to resist the invitation in those wonderfully alive eyes.

"I won't – "

"I've been there before, Brooks," Dan cut him off. "It feels like shit when someone whose arms you fell asleep in wakes up and starts treating you like you drugged and raped him. I don't need that kinda scene again."

Dan wished those huge eyes would stop studying him so intensely. They made Dan feel as if they could read him straight down to his soul; the compassion that warmed them only confirmed that notion.

"It won't happen that way. Not with me. I won't do anything to hurt or embarrass you. I promise."

Another night Dan might have laughed at such earnestness, might have made the other man regret his candor with lightly mocking words that would cut to the very soul, the best defense being a strong offense.

Dan searched for the strength to pull it off. He didn't know why Brooks scared him so much. He'd had other lovers who'd tried to win more than his body for a few nights, men who'd been eloquent, self-confident, used to playing the game. He'd evaded them all with ease.

Why, then, was this awkward, unschooled misfit so hard to escape?

The white hand on his forearm slid up to his shoulder, the other hand moving to mirror the gesture. Dan could feel the warmth of the loose hold through the thin cotton of his tee shirt, could almost feel the sweat on the palms soaking through the faded fabric.

Hypnotized by the determination in that watching gaze, Dan allowed himself to be drawn forward.

"I won't hurt you," Brooks promised again, his soft voice shivering through the spellbound Dan. "Ever."

Then they were kissing, and even the inevitable hurt didn't matter to Dan anymore.

His hands came around Brooks' bare back as he surrendered to the feeling and crushed their chests together, feeding hungrily at the other man's mouth. He couldn't get enough of those sweet kisses.

Dan gave a thought to his ardor overwhelming the younger man as his body responded like an affectionate steamroller. Although Brooks was a little uncertain in his own caresses, he didn't seem frightened of Dan's. To the contrary, Brooks appeared to come alive under them, opening up under Dan's lips and hands like a tightly closed rosebud in the morning sun. Soon Dan could feel the full mouth kneading against his own with almost desperate yearning. Nevertheless, Dan took his time, being careful not to move too fast and startle this timid prize, for all that his own body was blazing with desire.

The passion was like a windblown forest fire – burning strong in one place, the sparks picked up and carried elsewhere to flare just as bright. He was being consumed, burned up from the inside out.

Brooks' hands gripped his shoulders again, drawing him down. Helpless, Dan could only follow.

His own clothes and the blankets which were still tangled around his companion's waist soon became intolerable impediments. Needing to feel all of their skin touching. Dan broke away. The incoherent cry of protest that came after Brooks' indrawn shocked breath made him all the more desperate.

Dan impatiently shrugged his way out of his shirt, the silken fall of hair against his shoulders and back a highly sensual experience in itself.

Brooks' hand reached up to comb the fine, raven length, hi fingertips inadvertently grazing Dan's nipple. Inside its tight denim vice, Dan's cock jerked in response.

Highly conscious of that hot gaze following his every move, Dan fumbled his jeans open, skimming both them and his briefs over thin hips with practiced ease. The rush of physical relief was so intense that it took Dan a moment to sense the alteration in mood.

Not understanding the subtle change, Dan looked to his partner.

Brooks' wide-eyed stare was focused on Dan's genitals. Accustomed as he was to receiving admiration after such an unveiling, Brooks' open trepidation took a little getting used to. From his expression, one would have thought that Brooks had never seen a man's cock before. Then, recalling their differences in that particular area, Dan realized that it was completely possible that Brooks had never seen someone who'd never been cut.

"We're not that different," Dan chuckled encouragingly.

The light gaze darted to Dan's face before dropping to Brooks' delicate hands.

"No," Brooks replied in a tone that made Dan suspect that it might be their similarities as much as their differences that had unnerved him.

'Hey." Dan cupped a smooth cheek and raised the beautiful, frightened gaze to his own. "You wanta stop, you just say. It's okay. We'll still be friends," Dan assured, meaning it. As much as stopping would kill him right now, he wasn't willing to proceed with fear between them.

Brooks' gulp was awkwardly loud in the silence between them. "No. It's just. . . ."

"I know. It's pretty different at first, scary. But I'm not gonna do anything you don't want me to," Dan promised. His forefinger dipped out to flick the tip of Brooks' upturned nose. "You just relax a little and I'll bet you find the feeling's the same."

"'Would you kiss me again?" Brooks questioned, sounding as though it were an imposition.

"Anywhere you want."

Brooks' mouth responded with almost desperate eagerness, as if Brooks were trying to force his response. Dan could feel the shock of reaction that ran through the smaller man when their bare chests pressed together. It was some time before Brooks' arms settled tentatively around his back.

Sensing that uncertainty, Dan took the initiative. His kiss moved from Brooks' passion-reddened lips to his creamy throat and downwards. Mentally, he gave this seduction five minutes. If Brooks weren't relaxed by then, he'd call it quits, no matter how strongly Brooks protested.

Brooks' nipples were like tiny pink rosebuds dropped in a field of snow, his flesh so white it was almost unnatural. Dan could actually see the web work of blue capillaries right below the skin in places. He kissed his way to those rosy peaks of color in the otherwise powdery chest. Just looking at them made him want to suck them. Slowly, stretching the anticipation, he licked his way to the pink peaks.

Normally, with a partner so unnerved by his first encounter with another man, it took some time to coax the beginner enough to view the experience as pleasurable. Dan was expecting to have to work very hard to earn Brooks' enjoyment. Yet, the moment he twirled his tongue around his nipple, Brooks hissed in a breath, his entire body jerking in reaction.

After that the feeling took them both by storm.

Dan worked his way down his companion's chest. The blond's torso was still very much that of an adolescent, perhaps even lacking the expectable muscle development for someone his age; but the light dusting of ginger-red body hair, nearly invisible as yet, seemed to promise future developments.

Dan was in no rush. He liked Brook's body as he found it: young and quivering with excitement at his smallest touch.

Brooks' sensitivity was extraordinary. His explorations hadn't even brought Dan to the shallow navel yet and already the blond was sheened with sweat, panting for every breath. His friend seemed to feel things with inordinate intensity, the responsiveness so overwhelming that Dan found it a bigger turn-on than he did many partners' touches. Viewing the passion-ravaged blond, Dan had the impression that the shy, younger man had held himself so much apart from life that when his barriers actually did crumble around him, he was left with no defense, no ability to hide what he felt.

Understanding now why Brooks was so guarded around people, even those he knew intended him no harm, Dan found his heart embracing Brooks, silently returning the blond's vow never to hurt him.

Unable to refrain any longer, he took hold of the blankets hiding Brook's lower body. A simple tug wasn't sufficient to free him. Dan had to struggle with the tangled covers for over a minute before he was able to wrench them apart, the action far more fierce than he'd intended.

Brooks gasped at the violence of the gesture, but the sound was lost on Dan, who was struck motionless by the intense beauty of the flesh revealed.

<i>He's so white</i>, Dan marveled, never having had a lover this pale. Gazing down at Brooks' semi-aroused cock, he could sense the other man's self-consciousness, how difficult Brooks was finding it to lay there and allow Dan to look his full without attempting to hide from him. He was like some sacrificial virgin, hidden away his whole life from the eyes of others, only to be offered up now to Dan's pleasure. Arousing as the notion was, it entailed an incredible responsibility. It would be so easy to hurt this tender being.

Dan stared down at the pale cock rising from its golden-red pubic thatch, noting the heavy balls, the powerful thighs. Whatever else Brooks might or might not be, he was a well-endowed male.

Careful to make no sudden moves, Dan slowly reached out to touch this straining prize. The springy, moist shaft nestled into his palm as though specifically designed for that fit.

Brooks released a shuddery breath that ended on a small, involuntary cry, the shaft in Dan's palm hardening and jerking in reaction.

"You're incredible, Brooks. Like a lemon ice popsicle with a cherry tip," Dan admired. "You make me wanna lick you." He made the last a question, the disbelieving wonder in the other man's face all the permission Dan needed to do just that.

Dan descended on his prize. Brooks' heady, musky scent and distinct salty flavor filled his being. He trailed his tongue from the scrotum up the underside of the organ to the flaring top, delicately tracing patterns across the circumcised head. Brooks' frantic sounds of animal pleasure spurred him on, not that he needed any encouragement to lap up the shiny pre-seminal fluid his efforts earned him.

Dan sucked the shaft into his mouth, spending the next few minutes contentedly working at Brooks' pleasure, his own body igniting as though he were on the receiving end.

Sensing how close his partner was, Dan released his cock. Brooks' dismayed whimper as he withdrew stabbed right through him.

"Ple-e-ease, Dan, don't. . . ."

"Ssssh," Dan soothed, reading the fear of abandonment in those too-expressive eyes, as if Brooks thought he'd take him to the brink of ecstasy and then leave him there alone. "I want us together the first time," Dan explained, lying down upon the unresisting body, crushing his own hard cock against Brooks' saliva-slick shaft, ignoring the surprise in those brilliant eyes as he took Brooks' mouth in a bottomless kiss.

The reaction was instantaneous as Brooks seemed to deliver himself into Dan's hands. Brooks' body melted beneath him, accepting his weight. The thighs parted, spreading to grip Dan's slender hips between them in a surprisingly powerful hold, alabaster pale legs twining over Dan's cinnamon-toned ones to hold him in place.

Dan's belly fluttered at the sight of those splayed thighs, wanting so much more than what they were now doing. The hands that settled on his ass, intimately cupping his flat, muscular butt, seemed to be urging him on to more than this pleasant belly-rub. Brooks' body instinctively offered him anything he might want to take.

But now wasn't the time for that. Maybe never. Tonight was for Brooks, to show the disillusioned man that there was something more for him in life than an icy grave.

The sex was better than the uncomplicated position should have been. Their mouths locked tight together the entire time, they rocked to a strangely satisfying climax.

The feeling seemed to take Dan's whole body, spiraling out from his mouth and groin, vibrating through his bone marrow. The fingers squeezing his ass to encourage his rhythm added shooting pulses of delight to that sweet buildup.

Dan kept pushing down harder and harder as the urgency built, wanting nothing more than to crawl into the other man's velvet flesh. Brooks seemed to be equally intent on such a joining, for his squeezing fingers and gripping legs became almost painfully tight.

Dan's companion stilled beneath him quite abruptly, Brooks' mouth breaking free in a guttural groan as Dan felt the warm liquid bathe their tight-pressed tummies. His own body spasmed as that spray hit him, their seed blending together as their racing hearts deafened them both.

His head sank down between Brooks' shoulder and neck. Drained, Dan just lay there, kissing behind the nearby ear, feeling Brooks' fingertips carding through his hair.

"Thank you," Brooks whispered at last, sounding thoroughly shaken by the experience.

Dan lifted his head to stare down at the pleasure-sated face. It had taken so little on his part to cause this joy that he felt almost guilty.

"I'll give you something to thank me for," Dan decided on impulse, swooping down to claim the passion-reddened mouth.

He initiated the most calculatedly sensual assault on the other man's body that he'd ever delivered. Using every bit of his considerable expertise, he quickly roused the unsuspecting blond to fever pitch once again.

"D-Dan,' Brooks gasped, his fingers winding through the black fall of hair veiling Dan's face to his head from his groin.

Dan reluctantly broke away from his sucking, stilling his fingers which were stroking the eiderdown between
Brooks' wide-spread thighs. "Yeah?"

"Do you want to . . . ." Brooks' creamy cheeks flushed with embarrassment. ". . . do it?" A thrust of his hips and widening of his already open thighs illustrated what 'it' was.

Dan wanted to take him so bad that it required every bit of willpower to hold himself back. He desired this spilt-cream body as he'd wanted no other in his life. But Brooks wasn't ready for that yet, nor was Dan himself, not on anything but a physical level. And everything he was feeling right now told him that taking Brooks would be a hell of a lot more than mere mechanics. There'd be no putting his heart on hold while his body did its thing when that union occurred.

Unable to actually voice his denial, Dan shook his head and admitted his intent. "I want you to do me."

Unexpectedly, it was fear which entered Brooks' eyes. "I-I can't."

Dan's insides turned to rock at the unanticipated denial.

"Why not?" Dan asked, trying not to let his sense of rejection show.

". . . because. Can't we just. . . ."

Dan studied the other man as Brooks fell silent.

"I don't offer this to everyone, Brooks," Dan said at last, letting some of his hurt out. "I know you want me. I can feet it in your touch."

Brooks turned his face away, looking as ashamed as it were possible in such an intimate position.

"Brooks?" Dan gently questioned, carefully turning the averted face back to him.

"I-I'm no good at that," Brooks reluctantly admitted, appearing braced for ridicule.

If his companion hadn't been so dreadfully upset, Dan might have laughed at such a preposterous statement. But seeing the other man's distress, he didn't so much as crack a smile. "What?"

"I don't know how to do that right. The last time – "

The shadow that clouded those expressive eyes told Dan all he needed to know about that experience.

Dan took a guess: "Was it your first time?"

Brooks gave a tight nod, still on the defensive.

"Hers, too?"

Another nod, then Brooks reluctantly confessed. "I didn't know how to do it right. I hurt her. I didn't mean to, but . . . ."

"Ssssh," Dan soothed. "It always hurts the first time, Brooks. Girl or boy. I'm sure you didn't do anything wrong."

"Yeah?' Brooks questioned, visibly wanting to believe. "Did you. . . . I mean. . . ."

Dan thought back to his own first time, almost five years ago now. He'd never cared much for dredging up the past, and any thought of Chris was usually intensely painful, but for some reason he didn't mind talking to Brooks about it. "The first time I thought he was gonna split me open, it hurt so bad. Second time was better." He grinned as he remembered. "Third time was great."

"What about when you . . . ?"

Apprehending the gist of the incomplete question, Dan answered, "It happened much later. Different guy. He'd been around the tracks a few times. Like me. You won't hurt me, Brooks – if that's what you're worried about. So what do you say?"

Relieved, he saw the indecision melt from the light eyes. "You really want me to?"

With Brooks so shy and eager, Dan's answer would have been the same even if he'd meant 'no. '

Dan leaned forward to kiss that enticing mouth, giving Brooks' eager cock a playful squeeze as he did so. This was the first time he'd ever had to talk anyone into taking him. It felt strange. Generally, he had the opposite problem.

Brooks' body knew what he wanted, even if his mind didn't. He ignited under Dan's touch like dry kindling.

Dan might have started out as the aggressor, but his companion soon tilted the balance, instinct taking over where experience failed.

Tentative at first, Brooks' touches became progressively more daring as he explored the body offered to him. Although glaringly inexperienced, Brooks brought a devotion to his lovemaking that Dan had never encountered before. Brooks seemed determined to please him. When something didn't work that Brooks was trying out, he'd continue to experiment until he found what pleasured Dan the most in each specific area.

Brooks appeared just as fascinated by his skin as Dan was with his paler companion's. Those stroking fingers charted every inch of his body, lips and tongue often joining in. Always something of a sensualist, Dan found himself acutely sensitized to Brooks, reacting with almost overwhelming intensity to these tender forays.

Dan's nerve endings were sizzling with need by the time Brooks finally approached his groin. Dan watched the play of expression across Brooks' intent face as his partner regarded his cock.

It was here that the differences between them were most apparent. An eternity seemed to pass with Brooks straddling his thighs, simply staring down at him, before Brooks actually reached out to touch him.

Brooks collected him into his palm, lifting him up. Brooks' free hand did the same with his own organ, holding them side by side for comparison, as it were.

Dan grinned down at the sight of them held that way. Brooks' circumcised organ was thicker than his own, just a little bit smaller. The contrast between that white shaft with its rosy head and his own longer, dark cock in its natural, more stream-lined shape was extreme to say the least.

Wondering if his companion were put off by their dissimilarities, Dan met Brooks' gaze.

Brooks' expression was like that of a toddler who looks for the first time upon the night sky with understanding of the mysteries he was beholding. Brooks appeared slightly overwhelmed, but enthusiastic.

Dan swallowed hard, somewhat overcome himself by the nervous appreciation which Brooks was making no attempt to conceal.

Brooks released his own organ, and then slowly began to milk Dan's.

Dan knew it was all a learning experience for his friend, but his body went wild under the uncertain ministration. As if taking encouragement from his response, Brooks lowered his head.

The tentative touch of Brooks' tongue on his foreskin was exquisite torture, the sight of that golden head bending over him almost as arousing as the physical sensation itself. Brooks had the innocence of a choir boy and the potential of a prostitute, Dan thought vaguely.

He was surprised at his companion's courage. Brooks actually took him into his mouth, trying to suck him as Dan had done him earlier. Dan wasn't surprised when the choking man had to abandon the effort, but the fact that Brooks was willing to try that for him was for some reason more moving than his actual ability to accomplish his goal.

"Next time," Dan said, gently pushing Brooks' face away as he moved to make another try.

Right now all Dan wanted was to feel that pale cock deep inside him.

"Here," Dan reached over and retrieved the lubricant from its customary place beneath Last Gasp's framed publicity photo.

Brooks stared down at the tube in his hand as though he didn't know what to do with it for a moment before a sense of purpose smoothed his worried brow. "On you or me?"

"I usually do both," Dan answered, impressed with how well Brooks was handling this. "I can do it if you want," he offered, not sure if the bashful man would feel comfortable applying the lubricant.

"No. it's okay," Brooks quickly denied. "'I want. I mean. . . ."

"Good." Dan grinned at the crimson cheeks. "I was hoping you'd say that."

"You were?"

As Brooks squeezed some of the gel onto the first two fingers of his right hand, Dan pulled his knees up to his chest. Brooks' expression as he probed between the cheeks of Dan's butt was endearingly serious, making him suspect that Brooks felt as though this were the most important thing he had ever done.

The feeling that gave Dan was strange, unexpectedly intense. His romantic illusions had died before he'd turned sixteen. He knew the score, knew how much he could expect from a lover going into a relationship. Casual affection, good sex, a few laughs – never anything that interfered with his music, never anything that made him feel like he did when playing. But the way Brooks touched him, easing his greasy fingers up inside him as though he were made of bone china, the tender expression in that solemn face; it made Dan feel like the most special person in the universe. It was a feeling Dan wanted to take and hold onto, a feeling he wanted to turn into song.

He chuckled at the thought.

"Did I hurt you?" Brooks asked, his finger freezing just inside, ready to withdraw.

Dan squeezed him inside, smiling up at the worried face. "No. I was just wondering how to translate this into lyrics."

"What?" his friend questioned, understandably confused.

"Never mind. Just keep doin' what you're doin'," Dan pleaded.

"It feels okay?" Brooks checked.

"Feels a lot better than okay. You've got great fingers. Yeah, that's it. Deeper," His encouragement ended on a shocked gasp as Brooks contacted a very sensitive spot.

"Dan?"

He heard the concerned voice calling him through the waves of concentrated delight assaulting his nervous system. "Mmmmn?"

His purr seemed to temporarily disconcert the other man. He could feel Brooks staring down at him.

When Dan opened his eyes, it was to find a blindingly sweet smile stretching from one of Brooks' ears to the other, his eyes almost dancing with pleasure.

"I want you inside me," Dan murmured, reaching out a calloused fingertip to trace Brooks' left dimple, thinking how his companion looked like a different man when he smiled. Gazing up at the joy lit face, Dan could almost see the lighthearted child Brooks should have been.

Brooks gulped, his smile fading away.

The finger smoothly withdrew from inside him.

Touched by the worry Brooks wasn't quite able to hide, Dan watched the other man position himself.

His encouraging smile didn't seem to be helping Brooks very much. His tense expression still seemed to anticipate imminent disaster.

It was only when their eyes locked that a measure of calm entered Brooks' gaze.

"I want this," Dan reminded. "Go ahead."

When he'd offered this, Dan hadn't known what to expect – the heated, selfish fumbling of an unschooled teenager seeming the most reasonable assumption. He'd been prepared for that or any variation on that general theme, including premature ejaculation.

What he didn't anticipate was this slow, exquisite penetration. Rather than a hasty, forceful impalement, Brooks seeped into him like melting butter.

The care wasn't necessary. Dan almost wanted to tell Brooks to let go and enjoy himself, only it felt too good to interrupt. Nor did the pace seem to be any great hardship to Brooks. He didn't look as though he were struggling to hold himself back. If anything, Brooks seemed to be savoring every aspect of the slow entry. Dan could feel the welcoming squeezes he gave Brooks shuddering through Brooks' entire body.

Brooks came to a stop only when he could go no further, when Dan could feel every millimeter of flesh Brooks had filling him.

And it still wasn't enough for Dan.

"More," Dan pleaded, his knees already pressed flat to his shoulders.

Brooks squirmed the tiniest bit closer, grunting at whatever sensations it inspired.

Dan stretched his legs out around his companion, his knees tightly gripping Brooks just below his underarms.

"Lift me," Dan commanded, digging his heels into the fleshy butt to spur his companion on.

Though uncertainty flickered through the heated gaze, Brooks was too far gone to argue. Doing as instructed, Brooks raised himself to a kneeling position, lifting Dan up until he was almost doing a shoulder stand. Then Brooks started thrusting in and out, all restraints and inhibitions burned away as he gave them both what they so desperately wanted.

Breathing was difficult in this awkward position, but the incredible bursts of ecstasy that shook Dan's hold on reality as Brooks slammed in and out of him more than made up for the discomfort.

Wild didn't begin to cover the feeling. Dan felt as if he were flying high above the rest of the world, swirling out of control with nothing for company but an equally unbridled Brooks and this mind-blowing sensation.

Distantly, Dan realized that he should be frightened. He was utterly helpless in this position, at the mercy of a virtual stranger. Even with Joey he'd never allowed a sexual partner to have such control over him.

But uninhibited as it was, Dan never once felt himself in danger. Brooks was enthusiastic, but not mindless in his pleasure. Even at the highest peak of passion, Brooks didn't lose sight of the fact that this was another human being he was attached to.

Without ever once touching his cock, Dan felt himself climaxing, the internal stimulation more than he could withstand. The hot liquid sprayed down over his chest and chin in surprisingly powerful spurts.

A final thrust down that felt as if it would split his spinal column straight in half and Dan felt his partner spasming within. The gasps were torn from Brooks' body almost as fiercely as his seed, the union seeming to take all that he had to give.

As if drained of all energy, Brooks collapsed back upon his heels, slipping free of Dan's body as he gently lowered him back to the bed.

The groan that followed the straightening out of his strained back muscles seemed to shake the room, the agony that ripped through him completely unanticipated. He'd had no idea that his position was putting that much pressure on his back.

"Dan?"

"My back," he gasped, unable to stop the tears from springing up in his eyes. Annoyed with his weakness, he tried to blink them away.

"My God. Try to turn over," Brooks instructed, helping him over onto his stomach.

The hands that touched him at first brought only searing pain, but as the gentle kneading slowly uncramped knotted muscles, the agony gradually receded. Brooks seemed to sense exactly where he hurt the most and patiently coaxed each ball of tension to unwind.

"Better?" Brooks asked a long time later, flexing his no-doubt cramped fingers.

Dan rolled carefully over onto his back, slowly taking stock of himself. "Yeah, much. Where'd you learn to do that?" Unlike their lovemaking, there had been nothing uncertain about those touches.

"My great aunt Elsa had a bad back. She used to say I was the only one who did her any good."

"Used to?" Dan asked gently, picking up on the pain, knowing without needing to ask that the two had been close.

"She was my father's aunt, though they didn't like each other much. She was the only one of my relatives who cared about me. She died a couple of months ago," Brooks explained.

About the time his girl dumped him, Dan realized. No wonder the guy was so messed up.

"Are you all right now?" Brooks asked, his worry over Dan seeming to have displaced any lingering sadness.

"I'm fine. You're something very special, Brooks," Dan said softly, still stunned by the passion they'd unleashed on each other.

A pleased flush tinted the pale cheeks, dimples appearing as his habitually shy smile touched Brooks' face. "That was…." Words seemed to fail him.

Sensing what the other man was attempting to say, Dan agreed, "It sure was." Then, because those eyes seemed to suddenly look a little lonely, he leaned forward and kissed Brooks.

Dan ended up with the golden head pillowed on his chest, the soft cadence of sleep-warmed breath blowing over his right nipple. Dan's arms were locked tight around his sleeping companion, his body obligingly still for all his internal turbulence.

There had to be an explanation for what he was feeling besides the one his confused mind kept returning to. He wasn't a child. He knew how the world operated. You just didn't go around falling in . . . falling for a stranger, a one-night stand. At least Dan Strong Hand didn't.

Until tonight.

Attempting to deny what his heart kept insisting to be the truth. Dan eventually drifted off.

*~*~*

"Wha. . . ?" Once again, Dan tried to turn, failing as he had the last two times he'd attempted to move. He was trapped, held as securely in place as though he'd been tied.

His eyelids reluctantly parted and he blinked, blinded by the onslaught of sunlight. Dan scowled down at the obstruction banding his chest, his irritation fading as he beheld the milk-white arms clutching him, holding him tight as a lifeline.

Memories of the previous night unreeled through his sleepy brain: what they'd done together, how his troubled companion had made him feel, and how desperately he'd sought to deny that last development.

In the more rational light of day, Dan examined his feelings as he had on any number of occasions, waiting for cool reason to dispel the madness of night. Mentally, he could catalogue and understand every one of the arguments against pursuing such a relationship, but none of those cold objections stood a chance against the trusting warmth currently attempting to squeeze the life out of him. It felt so good to wake up with Brooks curled all around him.

Brooks was different than anyone he'd known in the past. His innocence, his shyness and sensitivity, the gentle heart that couldn't stand by while a complete stranger shivered in the cold, all of these stirred something the worldly Dan had thought long dead. He knew his newfound love had problems, but not being Mr. Stability himself, who was he to judge?

The kid had been dumped by his girl and lost a loved one in a short span of time. That was enough to shake anyone's composure.

At least Brooks was brave enough to risk his heart in a relationship, Dan acknowledged, trying to recall the last time he'd done the same. Before Joey, that was certain.

The last lover he'd honestly loved? That would have to be Chris, for whose sake he'd lost his home and family.

He didn't think of that dark period often, but now Dan forced himself to remember.

If Chris had stuck with him, seen him through the bad times, would the loss of his childhood security have been a fair trade?

Since it hadn't gone down like that it was hard for Dan to say. All he really remembered of his first relationship was the utter sense of betrayal he'd experienced when Chris refused to leave his folks after Dan's stepfather had caught them together and thrown him out. Chris hadn't been able to handle the stigma that went along with Dan's love.

Lying there in the early morning quiet, listening to the distant cawing of a crow and the ticklish whisper of his partner's breath down his neck, Dan couldn't help but wonder how Brooks would handle that same stigma. Despite how deeply Dan felt toward him, there was only last night between them. For all his promises, Brooks might wake up hating him. It had happened before, Dan reminded himself, with guys who'd seemed much more stable than Brooks.

He tensed as a sleepy murmur from behind announced his partner's imminent awakening. As if on cue, the lax body stiffened. Dan could almost feel the confused gaze boring into the back of his skull.

Dan lay perfectly still, feigning sleep, waiting to see how his companion would react to their intimate embrace.

Odds were ten to one that Brooks would at least clear out of the bed, if not the apartment.

Not sure if he could handle the inevitable rejection, Dan braced himself for the worst.

The loosening of the arms around his waist seemed to herald the end. The supposedly more worldly Dan clenched his eyes shut to block out the sight of the hate that would taint those beautiful eyes.

He'd known better. You'd think he'd learn from past experience to steer clear of straights. But no, he had to go and fall for one. Now Brooks was going to. . . .

Brooks was settling back down onto the mattress behind him, the hand on Dan's waist relaxing from its strangulation hold. Shocked, he felt the soft brush of lips on his bare shoulder as the other man snuggled against him spoon-style.

His pounding heart lurched to a stop before starting up again with an excitingly different beat.

Dan swallowed the lump that was trying to choke him, not quite able to believe what Brooks' action seemed to signify, but absurdly grateful for it nonetheless.

He wondered what Brooks was thinking.

A smile curved his lips as the helpless hardening of the flesh just touching his backside gave him his answer.

Dan had to credit the other man's control. His bedmate wasn't doing anything to try and rouse him, was simply laying there with that no-doubt uncomfortable hard-on, just waiting, perhaps experiencing the same doubts Dan had upon wakening.

Remembering how hot he'd been for it after the first time his older lover had let him take him, Dan made his decision.

"Mmmmn . . . good morning." Dan greeted, arching back in a seemingly natural stretch.

"Da-a-an," Brooks grated as the Dan's butt pressed against his erection.

Never one for teasing, Dan took hold of the hand now digging into his waist, guiding it to his own front. He wrapped the pale flesh around his own awakening shaft and suggestively wiggled his ass.

"Come on. Give it to me," Dan urged.

The gasp Brooks gave shivered through the more sophisticated man. Dan found the other man's lack of experience inexplicably arousing.

Dan had thought the hard cock would fill him immediately. The delay was puzzling. He listened to the hoarse breaths, sensing his partner's struggle for control, wondering if he'd completely misread the situation. He knew what Brooks' body wanted, but it was entirely possible that Brooks' mind had decided on something completely different. Like stopping this here and now.

"Where's the stuff?" Brooks rasped, his erection prodding between Dan's cheeks as though it had a will of its own.

Not understanding at first, Dan's heart nearly liquefied as he realized what was holding his friend back wasn't second thoughts. "Inside me." he answered shakily, touched by Brooks' reluctance to harm him. "Where I want you." He thrust back again.

This time there was no hesitation. Brooks slipped easily into the channel still slick from last night's loving.

Dan groaned as the pleasing bulk filled him, Brooks' grunt a sharp counterpoint. It was good. Nowhere near as wild as last night, but fulfilling all the same.

Brooks mightn't have had much practice when it came to lovemaking with a partner, but the expertise with which he worked Dan's cock bespoke his self-knowledge. After a moment's fumbling to adjust to the different angle, Brooks found a speed that naturally complimented the rhythm of his moving hips.

Besieged from front and back, Dan had no choice but to surrender to the delight. Subtle as a tsunami, the sensation crashed through him, leaving him reeling, drifting above what passed for reality.

Brooks came with a resounding moan, thrusting deep one final time, his face burrowing into the sweaty hair at Dan's neck as he collapsed against him.

The white-hot pleasure ravaging his system peaked and flared. With a small, almost shocked, cry, Dan exploded, spraying his belly and Brooks' moving hand with his sticky offering.

The roaring of his heart and the raspy breath in his ear filled Dan's consciousness as he struggled for coherency.

It wasn't simply the sex that was so different with Brooks, but Dan's entire approach to it. Normally, he preferred to be on the other end of this, but twice he'd given himself to his new friend, and enjoyed it thoroughly. He even liked the way the soft cock was still within him, Brooks apparently in no more of a rush to separate than he was himself.

After a time his lover slipped out of him, Brooks sighing as if in regret as he adjusted his position to that of a comfortable cuddle.

Dan luxuriated in the lazy kisses his friend gave his ears, neck, shoulders, and upper back, no longer surprised by how generous Brooks was with his affections.

They had both instinctively shied away from talk, as if aware of how words could shatter their fragile connection, but with his every touch Brooks' lips and hands revealed what he was feeling.

"Dan?"

"Mmmmn?" Dan murmured, arching into the palm stroking down his back.

"How did you get these?"

The finger cautiously investigating his lower back left him in no doubt as to what Brooks was referring to. Even without the tactile reminder, the tightly controlled emotion in the soft query would've been enough. The <i>none of your business</i> that normally followed such a question remained unvoiced.

Dan rolled over to face his companion, reading in the pale features that it was more than idle curiosity behind the inquiry.

"My stepfather thought he could change my sexual orientation by beating the crap outta me," Dan explained, even now finding it difficult to distance himself from the pain. Seeing how deeply even the sparse information he'd offered had affected his friend, Dan made a concentrated effort to lighten the mood. "As you may have noticed, it didn't work."

"Dan!"

Brooks' horror was a tenable presence, his empathetic response so strong that it shook Dan's unaffected veneer. "It's not as bad as it looks, Brooks. My skin's darker than yours. It scars easier. Don't let it fool you. I've got a thick hide."

"Did he hit you a lot?" Brooks asked carefully, reaching out to stroke his arm as if to assure himself that Dan was really all right now.

Although he flinched away emotionally from the question, there was no escaping that steady gaze. The compassion softening those eyes was like nothing Dan had ever encountered. Brooks actually seemed to feel his pain as if it were his own.

So, instead of withdrawing, Dan found himself replying, talking about things he'd never even mentioned to Richie, his closest friend. "No, he always hated my guts, but he never touched me until he caught me in bed with my best friend."

"He hated you?"

Not understanding why Brooks would sound so surprised by that, he answers the unvoiced <i>why.</i>. "I was an embarrassment to him. To my mom, too, after she married him." Seeing that he'd only added to the confusion, Dan spelt the situation out in plain English, "He didn't like that she'd been married to an Indian. I was so dark and they were so white. They always had to be explaining me to neighbors and friends, like I was some fuckin' mistake she'd made and couldn't get rid of."

Brooks seemed to have trouble finding his voice for a moment. "He sounds like the mistake to me."

Dan closed his eyes and nodded. "I always thought so."

It was not in his nature to seek solace from another, but when Brooks' arms settled around his shoulders and lightly nudged him closer, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to melt into that offered embrace. They both reeked of sweat and sex, but Brooks smelt better to him at that moment than a field of wild flowers. Dan settled his head against that creamy chest, breathing in the musky smell of his friend, listening to the living rhythm of heart and breath.

Unaccustomed to needing this way, Dan felt terribly vulnerable, almost afraid of what his companion would say or do while he was so open. Yet, he was oddly reluctant to give up this embrace.

That he should feel so protected didn't make any sense when he considered that it had been a little over 36 hours since he'd fished the kid out of that frozen lake, but Dan felt strangely safe with those arms around him.

Even when Brooks spoke, it didn't break the spell.

"I never understood how people can do things like that to their kids: how your mom could let some guy treat you like that or mine could just walk away and leave her babies behind."

"Maybe they were doing what they thought was best for us," Dan replied, sensing how deeply that last question troubled his friend.

"Huh?"

Dan raised himself up so that he could look down into Brooks' eyes, very aware of the press of every inch of their bodies against each other. "I know that my mother thought that any father figure was better than none at all. Yours probably thought your dad could give you more than she could on her own."

"All I ever wanted was for someone to love me. He couldn't do that," Brooks whispered, visibly shaken, but no longer falling apart.

"Yeah, you keep hopin' right up until the day you finally walk out the fuckin' door that things'll change and that somehow they'll want you."

"At least your mother didn't run off and leave you," Brooks offered in way of consolation.

"There is that," Dan agreed. He was tempted to enlighten his friend as to how an unloving parent could be worse than none at all, but decided that it would only be giving in to self-pity. He'd made his choices and dealt with
those particular demons years ago. The past was best left where it belonged, as ancient history.

Only the history wasn't that ancient to Brooks. That early abandonment was obviously a constant, eroding shadow on his self-confidence. His girlfriend's recent rejection had probably just brought all those old, unresolved traumas to a head.

Sensing the bitterness hiding below that quiet surface, Dan tried to break through the guards again. "You really don't know that your mom ran off and left you, Brooks, do you?"

"What do you mean? She's been gone since I was eighteen months old. I told you that."

<i>Careful here</i>, Dan thought, phrasing his suggestion with deliberate caution. "Yeah, but maybe it wasn't her idea."

"What?" The frozen features told him he now had Brooks' complete attention.

"Look, I don't know nothing about your old man except what you told me, but maybe leaving you wasn't her choice. You told me how he threatened to have you put away. What makes you so sure he didn't pull something like that on her?"

'You mean . . . he had her committed?" The shock was fading from the expressive gaze, anger taking its place.

"I don't know." Dan shrugged. "But maybe you could try giving her the benefit of the doubt. She could have loved and needed you as much as you did her."

"I used to think he got bored with her. He always gets bored with his women. I used to think that maybe that was why she left us all, but . . . I never thought about her being forced to go. That's even worse in a way, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Dan agreed, no longer sure that he'd had the right to make such a suggestion. For all he knew, Brooks' mother could be dead.

Yet, his idea seemed to have helped somehow. Although saddened, his companion seemed oddly at peace, as if it were easier to accept an enforced separation than willful abandonment.

Brooks appeared to ponder all they'd said for several moments before his gaze fixed upon Dan again. "Dan?"

Utterly captivated by the glow in those brilliant eyes, Dan murmured, "Mmmmn?"

"Thanks. No one's ever really wanted to talk about any of this with me before. You . . . made me feel better."

"It's mutual." Dan smiled, lightly tapping a dimpled cheek with his knuckles. Only now did he notice the fan of thick lashes fringing Brooks' eyes. It seemed every time he looked at his friend he discovered some new wonder.

The childlike smile was pure sunlight, warming Dan to his bones.

Afraid of what a kiss would do to him now, he gave the fluffy blond hair an affectionate tousle. "We're gonna starve to death if we lay here much longer. Don't know about you, but I could use a shower." Before those eyes could drag him down again, Dan pulled himself upright. "Age before beauty," he challenged.

Brooks only grinned. "Go ahead. I haven't got the energy yet."

"Wiped you out, did I?" Dan chuckled, sobering at the expression of marvel in Brooks' suddenly serious face, his joking question making all they'd shared real again.

"Totally," Brooks answered in a soft voice.

They both knew Brooks wasn't talking about the physical. Not ready to face what his companion was referring to,

Dan fled to the sanctuary of the bathroom.

*~*~*

A half hour later the bewildered guitarist sat in his kitchen, the scents of sweet soap and shampoo sharp in his nostrils, his wet hair sopping through the back and shoulders of his black button-down shirt, his body thrumming from the good loving, his heart torn with conflict as he listened to the sound of the shower running in the bathroom. Any minute now Brooks was going to walk out from behind that closed door and they were going to have to deal with what had transpired in his bed.

Dan almost found himself wishing that the scene had gone down this morning as he'd feared it would. Unpleasant as they were, he knew how to handle morning-after rejections. The tenderness with which the soft-spoken blond treated him was something new to his experience.

<i>And, let's face it, Danny boy, you just don't know if you can live up to what you see shining in his eyes every time he looks at you,</i> his conscience accused.

There was no escaping that truth, so Dan sat there stirring his coffee, wondering how he'd been insane enough to get into this situation in the first place.

He didn't believe in love. Every time he'd thought he'd fallen for someone, he was inevitably left holding the pieces of his broken heart in his hands. Anyway, what good could he possibly bring to a romantic like Brooks, a boy who felt love so deeply that he was willing to throw his entire life away when his girl walked out on him – a straight boy, his rational mind studiously amended.

Brooks had done all right when it came to their tame belly-rub and screwing him, but how was he going to react when Dan wanted to turn the tables?

And, Christ, but he wanted to turn the tables.

"Shit!" Dan cursed as a sudden pounding at the front door sent his coffee shooting across the none-too-clean linoleum. "Damn it, Richie, can't you knock like a human being?" he shouted, recognizing the enthusiastic tattoo. "Use your key already."

A muffled, "Can't. Left 'em at home," penetrated the thick door.

Dan stalked to the door and swung it open. Whatever was burning in his eyes brought a sheepish smile to the drummer's round, boyish face.

"Sorry, Danno. Did I catch you at a bad time?" Rich asked, his thoughtful brown gaze raking over Dan's black-clad figure assessingly.

Dan sighed and stepped aside, knowing how useless it was to even try to stay angry with Rich. "Get in already."

With his unkempt brown curls and three-day-old five o'clock shadow, the bulky drummer resembled nothing so much as a golden grizzly. Rich even moved with the surprisingly graceful gait of an ursine.

"You hungry?" Dan asked, bidding a mental farewell to the loaf of raisin bread that had been intended as breakfast for the rest of the week.

"What'chya got?"

"Raisin bread and coffee. Raisin bread and juice. Raisin bread and water . . . ."

"How 'bout some raisin bread?" Rich grinned, concern shadowing his eyes as he got his first good look at Dan. "You okay, Danno?"

Not really wanting to answer, Dan nodded and asked the first thing that came to mind. "How'd the party go after I skipped out?'

"Shi-i-it, you should've hung around for the fun. We didn't get out of that asylum till after five last night."

"Good party, huh?" Dan absently asked, his mind on the man in his bathroom as he put bread in the toaster, poured juice, and gathered mismatched crockery together.

"Not exactly. Hey, who's that for?" Rich demanded in his own subtle fashion as Dan placed a third glass of orange juice on the table.

"My friend in the bathroom," Dan said.

"A friend in the bathroom or a <i>friend</i> in the bathroom?" Rich enquired, his eyes alight with mischief.

"Mind your business and eat your breakfast."

"It's still in the toaster," Rich complained. "Come on, Danno, 'fess up. Tell your Uncle Richie all the juicy details."

"You couldn't make it through the hors d'oeuvres, never mind the main course," Dan laughed, knowing his friend.

Rich was as straight as an arrow and as unprejudiced as they came. He'd never looked at Dan as a half-breed or a homosexual, only as a fellow band member and later as a friend. But for all the drummer's acceptance of his lifestyle and brash joking around, Dan knew the particulars about what he did in bed would leave his friend completely unsettled – were Dan given to discussing such private matters, which they both knew he wasn't.

"Come on, Dan."

"Tell me about the party," Dan commanded in a no-nonsense tone as he placed a stack of raisin toast between them.

"Party? Turned out to be more like a trip through the fuckin' <i>Twilight Zone</i>. First you and Joey have that blow up – his nose is broken, by the way – then we spend half the night playing hide-and-seek looking for our host's family lunatic, and the rest of the night flushing party favors down the can before the heat arrived."

"Huh?" Dan grunted around a mouthful of hot coffee, this not at all what he'd expected to hear.

"Seems that Carstairs dude, Cleveland, has a kid brother who's a few cards short of a full deck. He and the head case had some kind of row and the kid took a walkabout around midnight without his overcoat. Our host panicked. One of the guests noticed a hole in the lake and Cleveland was convinced the flake had gone and drowned himself. So they have the cops out to drag the lake. But there's no body. Then they figure the nut's been kidnapped, so they call in the Horsemen. Normally, the missing person's gotta be gone at least 24 hours before they'll take the case, but since Carstairs' dad's got money commin' outta his asshole, they take Cleveland seriously. When they finally let us all go last night, they'd put a tap on the phone and were waiting for the ransom demand. Can you believe it?"

"Oh my God," Dan muttered, the coffee doing flip-flops in his empty stomach as he realized what he'd gotten himself into. He'd never asked Brooks his last name. All along he'd figured he was some rich kid, but never once had it occurred to Dan that he was Carstairs' brother.

"You shoulda seen Joey's face when they flushed his coke down the toilet!" Rich hooted, the laughter dying as he absorbed Dan's expression. "Hey, what's wrong, man?"

"Dan, do you have a phone? I'd better call home."

Their backs to the doorway, both he and Rich swung around at the soft question. From Brooks' strained features, it was obvious that he'd been standing there for some time and had overheard the drummer's entire narration.

"Isn't that. . . Jesus Christ, Danno, are you crazy? The cops in three provinces are looking for this guy," Rich said.

"I don't fuckin' believe this," Dan voiced his shock, his body numb.

"Have you any idea of the trouble you've gotten him into?" Rich hotly demanded of the blond frozen in the doorway.

Brooks seemed to shrink in upon himself, as if prepared for a physical assault. "I'm sorry. It's not Dan's fault."

"Rich, back off. It's not Brooks' fault," Dan said.

"So what's he doing here?" Rich asked.

"He had a fight with his brother and needed to get away for a while," Dan supplied, recalling his young friend's fear of incarceration. What had happened two nights ago was Brooks' business. Considering the way the normally fair-minded Rich had been talking about an absolute stranger, Cleveland couldn't have painted a very stable picture of his brother for the authorities. "I invited him to crash here."

"You don't have to do that, Dan. Not with your friend," Brooks denied, his gulp audible to both musicians halfway across the room. "I was really upset and mixed up the other night. I . . . uhh . . . didn't think there was anything much worth living for and . . . uhh …. I tried to drown myself in the lake. Dan pulled me out and brought me here." Brooks' gaze dropped to his bare toes. "Dan wanted me to call home, but I didn't want … I wasn't ready to go back there yet. This is all my fault," Brooks admitted, leaving himself wide open for a verbal attack.

Dan opened his mouth to protest, but Rich's voice filled the painful silence before he could get the words out.

"Hey, it's all right," Rich rushed to assure, the compassion that was so much a part of his nature as helpless against Brooks as Dan was himself. "You didn't do anything wrong."

Standing there in a pair of Joey's old blue jeans and one of Dan's Beatles tee shirts with his hair all wet from the shower and his feet bare, Brooks looked about as displaced as Dan could imagine, like a refugee who'd finished a long and arduous journey to a safe haven, only to be turned back at the border.

"Brooks, this is my friend, Rich Johnson. He tends to stuff both feet in his mouth every time he opens it, but he's a good friend." Dan stared pointedly at the shaggy musician.

"I . . . uhh . . . was outta line before, Brooks. I didn't mean what I said. No hard feelings, huh?" Rich offered his hand.

There was no give at all in Brooks' guarded features. After a moment Brooks gave a sharp nod and slipped his hand into Rich's outstretched palm, acting as it he expected the limb to be snapped oft at the elbow.

"Come in and sit down, Brooks," Dan suggested, feeling as if all the progress they'd made in the last two days had been undone. Rich's arrival had disrupted the easy friendship that had been growing between them. Dan could almost hear Brooks' mind working overtime behind those wary eyes as he took his seat. Brooks' body language was highly defensive, as if Dan had somehow betrayed him. Or was about to.

Rich's open curiosity wasn't helping matters any either. His friend was studying Brooks as though he were the sole surviving member of a species he'd never encountered before.

For his part, Brooks' gaze remained firmly fixed on the tabletop.

"Would you two please quit it?" Dan pleaded, unable to deal with this kind of conflict while the Montreal police force was quite possibly hunting him at this very moment.

Brooks flinched as if he'd been struck, but lifted his wounded gaze to Dan's face. Rich relaxed instantly and gave Dan a sheepish smile.

"Sorry," Rich said. "He's just so. . . ."

"So what?" Brooks demanded with the first sign of truculence Dan had seen in him.

"So different than I expected," Rich answered. "Your brother made you sound . . . ."

"I'm not crazy," Brooks stated, sounding resigned to not being believed.

"I can see that," Rich agreed, for once saying the right thing.

"We'd better make that call," Dan said, dreading the inevitable questions that would follow. He looked at the tense man at his side, Brooks' raw fear lancing straight through his own irrelevant concerns. Without conscious guidance, he found his hand covering Brooks' clenched fist where it rested on the table. That pale ball of tension felt very small in his own long-fingered, red hand. "Hey, it's gonna be all right. You've just gotta play it cool. You haven't done anything wrong. It's your brother that got everyone all worked up over nothin'."

"But the lake . . . they're gonna know . . . ."

"Know what? There's a hole in the ice. So what? No one saw you out there but me, and I ain't sayin' a fuckin' word about it to anyone. If they ask, you play dumb. You had a fight with your brother and went to stay at your friend's. That's your story. Stick to it. It's not even a lie," Dan counseled.

"Yes, but . . . ." Brooks fretted.

"He's right, Brooks," Rich added, eyeing their joined hands curiously. "No one knew what to make of the hole. It was only the puke beside it that made them think that someone had actually fallen through it. As far as the cops know, someone just had a little too much to drink and almost got themselves killed. That's what the cops were sayin' before Cleveland started talking about kidnapping."

Brooks nodded, visibly unconvinced.

"Come on. I'll be right here beside you," Dan promised, rising to his feet.

Brooks looked at their clasped hands, seeming to take strength from the contact. Then he followed Dan to the phone in the living room.

Brooks picked up the bulky old black receiver. Their gazes met as his finger paused over the rotary dial. Brooks took a deep breath, surprising Dan with a small, uncertain smile. His face setting determinedly, he dialed the number.

"Hello? Cleveland? Yes, it's me . . . . No, I'm all right . . . ." That was all Brooks was able to say for some time before he finally interrupted the flow of shouting from the other end. "Look, Clevie, no one's been kidnapped. There is no ransom request. I've just been staying with a friend." Another long pause, then, "You never asked who my friends were, so how can you say that? That's not my fault . . . . You shouldn't have done that. Yes, I'll speak to him . . . .

"Hello, Inspector Gavin? No, I've just been at a friend's house . . . . We had a fight. I didn't think he cared where I was . . . . His name's Dan Strong Hand. He was with the band . . . . No, sir, I didn't, but I'm sorry about all the trouble this has caused you. I never thought Clevie would worry like this . . . . Yes, I understand . . . . No, sir . . . I can get back to the house in about an hour or so . . . . No. What hole? No, I don't. Yes. I'll see you then. Goodbye." Brooks slowly hung up the receiver.

"Well?" Dan asked when no information was forthcoming.

"I think Clevie's in trouble," Brooks said.

Unable to believe his friend could possibly be worried about that loser, Dan demanded, "I don't care about him. What about you?"

Brooks shrugged. "The Inspector wants to talk to me. I told him I'd be back in an hour."

"Okay, I'll drive you over," Dan said.

"Dan?"

'Yeah?" Dan asked, looking around for his jacket and car keys.

"I don't have any shoes," Brooks said.

"Damn, that's right," Dan said. "I bet they're still wet and frozen. They're all tangled up with your clothes in the back of the van."

"Is there a store nearby?" Brooks asked.

"Not on a Sunday, there ain't," Dan answered.

"What size do you wear?" Brooks asked him.

Having had the same thought, Dan shook his head. "Fourteen. You?"

"Ten." Brooks sighed, returning glumly to the kitchen.

"So what goes?" Rich practically leaped upon them as they entered, surprising Dan that he hadn't been eavesdropping. "Shit. Are they gonna arrest you or what?"

"No. They bought the fight story," Dan supplied. "But I forgot to take Brooks' shoes up from the van on Friday night and they're still frozen solid. We don't want it getting around that it was Brooks that made the hole in the lake. He shows up shoeless, it's gonna be pretty obvious that something more happened than his leaving the party in a snit."

Rich's gaze dropped to the feet in question. "What size are you, Brooks?"

"A ten," Brooks answered.

"We're in luck," Rich beamed, toeing off his scuffed running shoes. "They aren't much, but they are a ten."

"I can't take your shoes," Brooks denied, visibly shocked by the offer.

"Why not? Danno here can drop by my place and pick up my boots on the way back. You just give 'em to Dan next time you see him. Okay? Get the man a pair of socks, Danno," Richie commanded, thrusting his beat-up Nikes at Brooks.

Very proud of his old friend at that moment, Dan nodded his agreement. "Sure thing."

As he turned for the bedroom, he heard Brooks ask in astonishment, "Why should you do this for me? You don't even know me."

"You're important to Dan and he's important to me," Rich answered, forthright as ever. " 'sides, I didn't much care for your brother's attitude. Okay?"

Brooks' mumbled response was lost as Dan left the entranceway.

<i>Important to him</i>, Rich had spoken the words as if they were a given fact. It was a weird stand for the drummer to take, considering how Rich had responded to most of Dan's lovers in the past. <i>Be careful with him; he's just usin' you</i> – usually true. Or <i>you could do better</i> – a matter of opinion that usually proved correct. Or, the most often cited, <i>I just don't like him</i>. Rich's instincts when it came to people had proven far more reliable than Dan's own, at least where his lovers were concerned. That his friend would give such instant approval to someone who could turn out to be nothing more than a somewhat more memorable one-night stand was puzzling in the extreme.

"Here we go." Dan handed over the requested socks, not missing how relaxed Brooks now seemed in Rich's company.

'Thanks, Dan." The glow suffusing those newly familiar features sent a ripple through Dan.

Dan perched on the edge of his seat, watching his lover of last night don the socks and borrowed sneakers. Dan looked over to find Rich studying him with what he could only define as amused approval.

"I'm ready," Brooks announced, standing to test out the fit of his shoes.

"Not yet, you're not," Dan said, going back into the bedroom to swipe a blanket off the bed. Brooks stared at it blankly as Dan offered it to him. "It's freezing out there. I don't have an extra coat for you to borrow."

"Thanks," Brooks said softly.

With his drying hair fluffed up around his head, the borrowed clothes, and colorful Navajo-print blanket tossed across his shoulders, Brooks had the appearance of a 60s' flower child, so sweet and natural that he made Dan's guts ache with longing

Brooks glanced over at Rich, his dimpled smile claiming his whole face. "And thanks for the loan, Rich. It was really nice meeting you."

Rich chuckled. "It was realty bizarre, but you're welcome. You take care of yourself now, Brooks." The shoeless musician rose from his chair and enfolded the startled Brooks in one of his notorious bear hugs. "You got friends here. Remember that. No more ice-walking."

"We'd better go." Dan touched his speechless companion's shoulder as Rich released Brooks.

"Ahh, okay, Dan," Brooks replied somewhat dazedly, trailing him to the door.

"There's food in the 'fridge," Dan informed Rich, feeling strange about leaving him alone like this. "Leave enough for supper. You sure you're gonna be okay alone here?"

"What alone? I've got enough vinyl here to keep me a happy man till Christmas. Get movin'."

"Okay. Later, man." Smiling, Dan locked the door. Catching Brooks' slightly shell-shocked expression, he commented, "Rich can be a little overwhelming if you're not used to him. But he's the best friend you could find."

"I like him a lot," Brooks admitted.

"He liked you." Dan was still amazed by that fact.

"Are you two – "

"Huh?" Dan's concentration was on the recalcitrant lock to the apartment building's front door.

"Nothing," Brooks dismissed.

Belatedly realizing what the rest of Brooks' question must have been, Dan answered, "We love each other, but neither of us is in love with the other. He's helplessly hetero."

Why he didn't mind answering personal questions with Brooks was something Dan didn't want to think too hard about.

"Heter – oh."

Neither of them exactly dressed for the winter weather, they made a quick dash to the van.

"This is yours?" Brooks asked through chattering teeth as he took in the mural paint job.

"Yeah. She's somethin' else, isn't she?" Dan asked with a fond smile for his baby.

Dan opened the passenger door and sprinted to the driver's side. Before he'd gotten the key in the lock, Brooks had the door open for him. 'Thanks," he said, sliding gratefully in out of the fierce wind.

The ride back up to the Carstairs' estate was accomplished in progressively more unnerving silence.

For most of the trip, Brooks' gaze remained unseeingly fixed on the scenery, save for those occasions when it was pulled almost unwillingly to Dan's own set profile.

Each time those troubled blue eyes would settle upon him, Dan would feel that stare burning into him, a red-hot branding iron to his raw flesh. But when he'd turn to meet the gaze, it would jump away like a startled alley cat.

"Could you pull over here, Dan?" Brooks asked as they approached a driveway longer than most city blocks.

Dan coasted over to the shoulder, pulling out of the non-existent traffic.

Dan stared out the windshield over the snow-laced spruces, bare birches, and blanketed fields. From this distance the house looked like a medieval castle. The only things missing were the turrets.

Brooks came from this place. Old money and careful breeding were in his blood. Little wonder he didn't want the van pulling up to the house.

Sick at heart, Dan cursed himself for being such a fool. What place could a half-breed, drop-out, rock musician possibly have in someone like Brooks' world?

"I don't want to cause you any more trouble than I've already brought you," Brooks spoke softly into the choking silence.

Hiding behind the shield of indifference that had served him so well in the past, Dan looked over to Brooks. He was prepared to deal with pretension, all the polite reasons a guy from a place like this would brush him out of his life. The utter misery in those eyes was something he hadn't bargained on. His protest shattered around him like frozen glass.

Dan swallowed hard. "You brought me pleasure. That's all that I'll remember."

"Last night . . . ." Brooks began and faltered.

"What happened last night doesn't make you gay, just human," Dan said gently. "It can mean as much or as little about yourself as you want it to."

He watched the Adam's apple bob in Brooks' slender throat. "What did it mean to you?"

Anybody with more experience would have been playing this scene as cool as Dan had been trying to. Brooks' awkward, innocent question shook him to the core. He wanted to say 'a night's fun or a good fuck', any vulgar evasion that would cover the truth and let him get out of here without further complication, but he couldn't lie to those eyes. So he answered honestly, "More than I wanted it to."

A pause, then, Brooks asked, "Why's that?"

"Brooks, I've never had much luck with . . . ." Dan bit back the word 'love,' replacing it with, "…relationships. Least ways, not long-term ones. It's my own fault. I've never been able to … open up enough."

"You didn't seem to have any trouble opening up to me last night or this morning," Brooks gently pointed out, oblivious to the fact that this was the crux of Dan's problem.

"Yeah, well . . . ." Dan floundered.

"Was last night all there is?"

Dan didn't even attempt to swallow past the lump lodged in his throat this time. The ache went straight to the pit of his stomach.

Dan glanced out the window to the mansion on the hill and then looked back at the man at his side.

Funny, up until a few minutes ago, he'd been thinking of Brooks as a kid, but right now Brooks appeared more collected than Dan could ever hope to be, as if Brooks knew exactly how he felt and had eliminated all doubt from his mind.

"It should be," Dan whispered, looking away from that too-hopeful face.

"Should be?"

"If I had half a brain in my head, if I were giving any thought at all to what's best for you, I'd dump you on that lawn right now and get the fuck outta here," Dan admitted.

"Is that what you're doing?" Brooks questioned.

"What we did last night, you can still walk away from it," Dan almost pleaded. "Find yourself a nice girl that can go the distance. You're not locked into anything yet. You're young. You don't know what you're getting into with this."

"I'm not that much younger than you," Brooks protested. "I'm old enough to know what I want."

"You wanted to die two nights ago," Dan viciously reminded.

"I know." The subdued reply didn't try to deny the accusation. "It was . . . a mistake. I don't feet that way anymore. When I was out there on the ice that night, I didn't believe I could ever feel . . . good again. You showed me I was wrong, Dan."

Dan gulped and voiced his deepest worry. "Is that gonna change if I leave now?"

"What?" Brooks asked.

"If I drive out of your life now, are you gonna go for another midnight stroll on thin ice?" Dan defined his fear, not really sure what he'd do if he received an affirmative answer.

They were still basically strangers to each other. For all he knew, Brooks might be the kind of person who used pity and threats upon his own life to manipulate others into doing what he wanted. He'd seen how Brooks' brother treated him. Hardly the behavior of an emotional puppet, but Dan still didn't know for sure. There was no way he could after only one night, even though his heart insisted that Brooks wasn't like that.

"No, I'm not ever going to do that again."

Dan relaxed at the quiet promise.

"Brooks, I . . . ." Dan didn't know what to say. How could he ask anyone to leave a place like this to be with him?

"I guess this means no, huh?" Brooks spoke into the silence that followed. "It's okay, Dan. I understand. Thanks for . . . ."

Dan grabbed hold of a blanket-covered arm before his companion could make his escape. "You don't understand a thing," he hissed in frustration. "That's what scares the shit outta me." Dan took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. "Brooks, I really . . . like you. And not just 'cause you're good in the sack – which you are."

"Then why don't you want. . . ?" Brooks asked.

"I do want. Only . . . it ain't that easy. Do you know what it means when somebody's on the rebound?" Dan asked.

"It means someone's left them, right?" Brooks said.

"Right. And when that happens, it's very easy to get confused. To think you want something that you really don't, just because it fills the empty space that person's leaving left behind. Do you know what I'm trying to say?" Dan asked.

"It isn't like that, Dan," Brooks calmly denied, his attitude strangely non-defensive.

"Maybe not. But this is a pretty radical change you're contemplating here," Dan said.

"I know that," Brooks said.

"Do you? Have you thought about how . . . bein' with me is going to affect the rest of your life?" Dan challenged.

He shivered at the blank look Brooks gave him.

"What do you mean?" Brooks question didn't do anything to ease his fears, either.

Dan sighed. "I mean, it's more than just the sex to you, isn't it?" That question leaving himself very vulnerable as well, Dan held his breath as he awaited Brooks' answer.

Brooks' gaze dropped. After a moment, he reluctantly nodded, looking as if he were afraid of what that admittance would cost him, as if he feared Dan would dump him for his honesty.

"Okay. So it's important to you," Dan acknowledged, trying to contain his own emotional response to that admission. "How do you think those people up in that house are gonna respond to this? And if you think you can keep something like this a secret, get it out of your head right now. They're gonna know. Whether you tell them yourself or someone does it behind your back, they'll find out."

"So?" Brooks questioned.

"So how's your old man gonna like the fact that some long-haired, hippie freak is screwing his baby boy, huh?" Dan asked.

"Dan – "

Dan ignored the shocked protest and plowed on. "He'll cut you off, Brooks. You ever been without money?"

"I don't care about his damn money!" Brooks practically shouted, coming as close to cursing as Dan had yet to hear him.

"Not now you don't. But how are you gonna feel if things don't work out between us and you've lost everything you know for my sake? Don't say it wouldn't matter, because it will. Believe me, I know. I've been there," Dan said.

"Why are you saying these things to me?" Brooks asked miserably, his huge eyes bewildered and hurt.

"Because I don't want you jumpin' in blind. This could cost you more than I'm worth," Dan warned.

"Dan, I – "

"Don't say it," Dan cut him off, knowing he could never stand firm against the words he could see shining in Brooks' eyes. "Not until you've thought this out." His heart racing like the winter wind, Dan tried to collect himself. "Last night isn't all there is to it, Brooks. If you go this route, I'm gonna want that from you and a lot more."

"I wouldn't say no, Dan."

Dan smiled, reading the truth of that in the upset face. "Maybe not. But take some time to think this through. For my sake, if not your own. Okay?"

"Your sake?" Brooks questioned.

"You're not the only one who could get hurt here, Brooks," Dan softly admitted, wondering if his companion could sense how high the emotional stakes were for him in this.

"All right," Brooks agreed, his tone oddly solemn. He looked off to the colonnaded house in the distance. "I guess I should go in," Brooks said, making no move to leave.

"Yeah." Dan was equally reluctant to let him go. He had the horrible premonition that once Brooks entered those doors, he'd never see him again. "Brooks?"

"Yes?"

Dan dug one of his business cards out of his denim jacket pocket. "Take this. Whatever happens, no matter what you decide, if you ever need a friend – no strings attached – you call me and I'll come get you. Even if you just need someone to talk to. You're not alone anymore. You understand?"

His offer seemed to choke the other man up for some time. Brooks nodded, silently taking the card, clutching it in a white-knuckled fist.

"This feels like goodbye," Brooks said at last, his voice a sad whisper.

"That's up to you," Dan replied, his own chest unbearably tight with emotion.

Dan took a long moment to study his companion: the fluffy blond hair, shining like the purest gold in the late afternoon sun; the face meant for laughter and mischief, too often given to sorrow; eyes whose vivid blue Dan would never forget, no matter how many years he was given on Earth; the snowy skin, mostly hidden by the borrowed jeans and tee shirt; the slender body that had been so alive and responsive to him last night. He took it all in, memorizing Brooks, cherishing this man who'd given his cynical heart a taste of lost innocence. No matter what happened in the future, Dan would always be grateful to Brooks for that.

His gaze fixed on the full, sensuous mouth. Knowing he probably shouldn't, but not able to stop himself, Dan leaned forward and took that mouth for his own. His kiss probed deep as Brooks readily surrendered himself
to him. The willing response told Dan that, had he so desired, he could have made his companion totally his right here in the parked van.

The temptation to do just that all too strong, Dan broke the contact with a gasp.

"You'd better go." His harsh tone reflected his torn feelings.

"Y-yeah," Brooks stammered. "Dan, I —"

"Don't make any promises you can't keep, Brooks. Give it some time like we agreed. All right?"

"All right."

"You sure you don't want me to drive you up to the house?" Dan checked, leaping at any excuse to prolong their parting.

"No. I don't want you involved. I'll be all right, Dan. Really I will."

Something in that suddenly certain tone told Dan that it <i>was</i> true. Brooks was going to be able to handle anything that awaited him back at the house. "I know you will."

"I'll see you soon, Dan," Brooks promised, bolting out the door as if to escape an emotional goodbye.

Dan sat frozen at the wheel, watching his friend trudge up the snow-covered drive.

The lines from a dozen love songs, never understood before this moment, echoed through his mind, all of them centering around loving something and setting it free. <i>Was this what they were talking about</i>, Dan wondered, <i>letting someone you love deeply make their own choices in life, even though those choices might lead them away from you?</i>

His heart a knot of loss, he saw Brooks finally reach the entrance. Brooks paused at the door to wave across the immense drive.

Knowing that Brooks was gazing directly into the setting sun and probably unable to see even the colorful van, Dan hooted the horn in farewell and took off down the road at breakneck speed.

*~*~*
###
"How's that sound, Dan?"

A young voice interrupted Dan's straying thoughts.

Dan started, looking guiltily back at his student.

"Try it again," Dan covered.

The thirteen-year-old gave a disappointed sigh, shoved his dangling brown bangs clear of his eyes and played the progression once more.

"No, like this," Dan corrected without his usual patience, picking the notes out on his Strat with open irritation.

"I'm sorry, Dan." Greg winced as he made the same error again, appearing almost scared.

Realizing what his face must look like, Dan consciously softened his features. "No, I'm the one who's sorry, Greg. It's not you. I've just got other things on my mind. You're doing great. Give it another try, huh?"

"Okay, Dan." The boy grinned, picking out the right notes this time.

"Good. Go on." Dan tried to concentrate on the lesson, but it was next to useless.

He'd been the same way for the last nine days, tense and irritable as he waited for the call which hadn't come, which was never going to come, he was now beginning to realize.

Well, what did he expect? He'd told Brooks to think it through. Had he really believed that anybody in his right mind would choose an unemployed guitarist over the Carstairs' fortune?

The blare of the telephone interrupted his student's self-conscious picking.

He hated how his heart leapt at the sound. It hadn't been Brooks for the last nine days. There was no reason to believe that would change now.

Richie's too-cheerful voice greeted, "Hi, ya, Danno. How's it going?"

"It's going," Dan said, adding a pointed, "I'm teaching right now."

"Fine. When are you through?" Richie questioned.

Dan sighed. There'd be no escaping Richie. He'd put his friend off for the last week with stupid excuses. It was high time he got his head out of the clouds and started living his life again. Brooks wasn't coming back. Only a fool would've sat around waiting even this long.

"In about fifteen minutes," Dan answered.

"Good. I'll be over then," Rich promised, hanging up before Dan could come up with another excuse.

Less than five minutes later, the buzzer sounded.

"Damn. He must've called from the corner. I'm sorry 'bout this, Greg," Dan said, rising to open the door.

"It's okay, Dan." The youngster shrugged.

"Why don't you ever use your damn key. . . ?" The question died on Dan's lips as he eyed the figure on his threshold. "Brooks."

"Hi."

The soft greeting shivered through him. He wasn't prepared for this.

They just stared at each other for a long moment, uncertainty the only sure thing between them.

"Can I come in?" Brooks asked awkwardly at last.

Dan stepped silently aside, watching the other man pass.

Brooks was dressed in the black coat Dan had seen on that first night. The touch of white at his throat hinted at a button-down shirt, the grey tweed of a pants leg no doubt that of an out-of-date suit. The only thing different from the night they'd met, aside from a more confident attitude, was Brooks' hair. He hadn't bothered to grease it back this evening. It lay soft around his head, just inviting touch.

Brooks carried a plastic bag in his hand, which he held like a shield between their bodies.

"I didn't think I'd hear from you," Dan said, trying to sound airily unconcerned, like it was no big deal to him either way.

"Yeah, well, I. . . ." Brooks stopped, staring into the living room.

Only then did Dan recall his student. "Ahh, Greg. . . ."

"I know. Lesson's over." The boy got up to pack his guitar away, surreptitiously shooting curious glances in Brooks' direction. "You from a record company?"

"Ahh, no," Brooks denied.

"Pack it up," Dan ordered, not really sure he wanted the boy gone, but equally uneager for an audience.

"Same time next week?" Greg asked.

"I'll call you," Dan promised, seeing his student to the door.

Once it was safely locked behind Greg, Dan turned back to his visitor, at a loss as to what to say.

"I brought back Rich's shoes," Brooks said, offering the bag.

"Was that all that brought you here?" Dan asked, being careful that there was no touching of their flesh at all as he accepted the bag.

"No, I. . . ." Brooks stopped, his first clear view of Dan seeming to shock the words from his mind. "Are you all right?"

Dan didn't know why everyone kept asking him that. Rich had been hovering about him like a nesting eagle for the last week, asking that same question at least twice an hour. His students, even the hero-worshipping Greg, all behaved as though he were standing there with two limbs missing and gaping wounds all over him. Yet when he looked in the mirror, he couldn't see what they saw. Aside from a lack of appetite, he was fine. "Yeah, just great," he answered shortly. "You were saying?"

"I did like you asked and took some time to think things through," Brooks began.

"And?" Dan prompted when the other faltered, his breath catching painfully in his chest. Those crystal eyes
pinned him, the longing and confusion stripping him straight to the soul.

"I need to know something, Dan."

"What?" Whatever it was, he had a feeling he wasn't going to like it.

"Am I. . . . Will it be. . . special to you?" Brooks asked.

"What?" Confused, Dan ran a hand through his long hair, pushing it back off his face. Only slowly did he become conscious of the hungry gaze following his move.

"If we become lovers, I. . . I need it to be special to you, too. I want to be the only one. I don't want to share
you," Brooks stated his terms up front, appearing strangely resolute.

"Forever?" Dan questioned, almost having forgotten what a romantic he was dealing with. A man willing to
die for love's sake would certainly choose to live for it.

Dan considered what was being proposed. No one had ever demanded fidelity from him at the very start of a relationship before. Hell, most of his liaisons never lasted long enough for the issue to even be raised.

"I guess it's pretty childish, huh?" Brooks spoke softly, looking away. But Dan picked up on his disappointment.

"No," Dan heard himself denying, "just hopeful. Brooks, I've never seen anything that lasts forever."

"I guess." Brooks sounded totally discouraged.

"But. . . ." He didn't even know what he was going to say. He just couldn't let Brooks go with that crushed look on his face.

"But?" Brooks swung eagerly around to face him again, so much hope in his features that it almost frightened Dan.

Dan took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "What about for the duration?"

"The duration?" Brooks echoed uncertainly.

"Yeah. For as long as both of us want to be together. I can't make you any lasting promises, Brooks. That's just not me. But I won't sneak around behind your back. Whatever goes down, I'll be up-front about it. That's the best I can offer." Not knowing if it would be enough for this idealistic young man, Dan waited, his body almost vibrating with longing at how close Brooks was standing to him.

For nine nights he'd thought of nothing but this sweet, pale flesh. Was a promise of undying fidelity too much to ask in exchange? Was he blowing everything by being honest about what Brooks could realistically expect from him?

"How long does the duration usually last, Dan?" the gravelly voice asked, Brooks holding himself very still.

"No one can answer that kind of question," Dan replied, beginning to lose patience until he saw Brooks' eyes had clenched shut. "Brooks, what is it?"

"The last time I. . . gave my heart to someone, it took less than a month for her to. . . move on."

Understanding at last, Dan reached out to brush Brooks' tense cheek with his calloused fingertips, watching the resultant indrawn breath shake the lithe form. "I want you for more than a month. Maybe more than a year of months."

The fair-lidded eyes snapped open. "But you said. . . ."

"I said I didn't want to be trapped by words," Dan clarified. "They don't mean anything if the feeling isn't there, Brooks. You. . . make me feel."

"I do?" Brooks questioned, sounding as if he were genuinely in doubt of that fact.

And why shouldn't he be? In retrospect Dan realized that all he'd tried to do once he'd recognized how deeply this puzzling man moved him was talk Brooks out of their relationship. Knowing that he'd played this situation far too cool up to now, Dan confessed, "You're the only thing I've been able to think about for the last week. I haven't been able to eat, sleep, or think straight since I left you. I haven't even been able to play worth a damn. When I didn't hear from you. . . ."

Brooks' gaze softened as though he'd read what remained unspoken.

His hand reached for Dan's face, stroking on to his hair. They both watched the silken, raven length slide between Brooks' pale fingers.

Dan wondered what his conservative friend thought about his hair, his lifestyle.

They were so very different: looks, upbringings, attitudes, musical tastes. . . everything. Brooks wanted forever. But, realistically, what chance did this have of lasting longer than the month Brooks prophesied?

Maybe he'd have been better off if Brooks hadn't come back, if they'd left it as just a pleasant interlude. . . .

"I won't hurt you," Brooks whispered, gazing up at him as if he understood precisely what the commitment-shy Dan were experiencing at that moment.

"You can't promise that. No one can," Dan protested.

"We'll see."

It was strange to see such confidence in Brooks.

Their eyes locked in a silent battle of wills, the pure, stunning blue of hopeful idealism challenging Dan's own world-wary, cynical black.

No lover Dan had known had followed through on the type of promise Brooks was asking of him. No lover could. He'd only be setting himself up for heartbreak with this.

Because, as much as it scared him to acknowledge the truth, deep down Dan wanted to believe. If he gave in now, it would be no superficial agreement, no role donned to humor his quixotic companion, not just words said to get what he wanted. His heart would be on the line as it hadn't been since. . . since Chris.

He'd already opened up to Brooks more than was sensible and given the relative stranger enough emotional ammunition to mortally wound him. That was why the last nine days had hurt so bad, knowing that he'd opened his heart up like that and Brooks had walked away too.

Only Brooks had come back, come back asking for forever.

To his disgust, Dan realized that he was trembling. He could see by the flash of shock in Brooks' face that Brooks was aware of it as well. Soul bare, Dan waited for some comment to be made upon his weakness.

The glint of challenge faded from Brooks' vivid gaze, an expression of lonely, desperate pleading taking its place, as if Brooks had realized what he were doing to him and were no longer attempting to force his acquiescence. Instead, Brooks was asking for it, which was all the worse. Consenting to defeat, to consciously choose this path to destruction. . . .

"I need you, Dan. . . please?" Brooks' hands settled lightly on his shoulders, exerting almost imperceptible pressure.

Knowing how the unicorn felt when it gave in to the virgin's lethal allure, Dan felt his will suborned to the longing in that beseeching gaze. Like a wild creature, he came trembling into Brooks' taming embrace.

As those sheltering arms came around him, welcoming him in, Dan gave a thought to how bizarre it was that he would be the one to need this type of comfort. He'd let Brooks screw him into the mattress, taking him in a manner most men would find difficult to accept. Yet he balked at the very idea of a relationship based on more than just sex.

Dan felt Brooks' body freeze in something like disbelief as Dan at last buried his face between the cashmere overcoat's collar and Brooks' golden-fringed ear, as if his friend couldn't believe that he'd actually won through. Then, with a sound close to a sob, Brooks melted against him, their mouths at last finding each other.

The kiss seemed to reach down to the bottom of Dan's soul, undoing his defenses in a way that no simple touching of mouths should have had the power to do. No longer fighting, he surrendered to the feeling, giving Brooks everything he had to offer, holding nothing back. If this gentle being chose to destroy him, so be it. It was his willing choice.

Vaguely, he was aware of the rattle of the front door. Then a familiar voice asked, "Danno, what's your suitcase doing out in the hall? We aren't leavin' yet, are we. . . ." Then, a shocked, "Oops."

Brooks stiffened at the interruption, but when Dan made no move to immediately break away, he relaxed again.

Dan took his time, completing the kiss before he lifted his flushed face.

"You're late, Rich," Dan commented as though the drummer had walked in in the middle of a lesson.

"Hiya, Richie," Brooks greeted somewhat more self-consciously from the circle of Dan's arms.

"Hi, Brooks. It's good to see you. . . back," Richie replied, his usual aplomb for once deserting him. Dan was pleased to note that his incorrigible friend for once actually looked flustered. "Sorry to interrupt. I'll come back later."

"Good idea."' Dan grinned wickedly.

"You want I should leave this in here or out in the hall?" Rich lifted the huge, black suitcase he'd lugged in with him.

Dan looked questioningly to the man in his arms. The embarrassed blush told him whom the case belonged to.

"Were you that sure of me?" Dan asked tightly, not certain he liked the idea.

Brooks gulped, shaking his head. "I was leaving there whether you wanted me here or not."

Dan studied the passion-flushed face, reading the truth of that in the worried eyes. Brooks hadn't been certain of his reception. Maybe still wasn't.

Dan turned back to his old friend, more than a little surprised to find a concern that mirrored Brooks' in Rich's face. Befuddled by its source, he softly instructed, "Leave the bag, Rich."

Amazed, Dan watched a grin light Rich's unshaven features. "Sure thing, Danno. You guys enjoy yourselves, now." With that, the musician retreated, locking the door firmly behind him.

"Rich doesn't mind?" Brooks asked incredulously.

Not understanding the unqualified approval himself, Dan shrugged. "Apparently not." His fingertip lightly traced the mouth that was just beginning to redden from his attentions. "Shall we pick up where we left off?"

"Please," Brooks breathed.

With a last thought to the oddities of fate, Dan led his new-found love to the bedroom.

The End

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